For those who go to theater to do more than laugh a bit at familiar old lines, a wonderful opportunity has opened up in Jamestown on May 10-12.
An organization called ''Theatre for a Cause'' will be performing on those dates, a production of a play which has become a beloved examination of the human condition and the things which make us human or inhuman. ''Tuesdays with Morrie,'' a play by Jeffrey Hatcher and Mitch Albom based on the non-fiction book by Albom with the same title, will be performed in the small side theater at The Spire in downtown Jamestown.
Two mainstays of local theater over the past several decades are involved: Director Robert John Terreberry and actor Ron Robertson. Joining them and serving as the producer of the production will be a young man who has already made a mark for himself on the stages of Jamestown Community College and the Lucille Ball Little Theatre of Jamestown, Adam Hughes.
Ron Robertson, left, and Adam Hughes portray teacher Morrie Schwartz and his former student, Mitch Albom, in the moving play ‘‘Tuesdays with Morrie.’’ It will be performed at The Spire of Jamestown, May 10-12.
I recently stopped by a rehearsal of the play to talk with the three principals, and I'd like to share with you the main facts about the production, and what I learned from our conversation. Then I'll tell you some of the background I've discovered of the play and the book on which it is based.
''Tuesdays with Morrie'' is based on a true relationship between author Mitch Albom and the teacher in college who most inspired him, both inside and outside the classroom: a professor of sociology at Brandeis University, named Morris S. Schwartz.
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American Repertory Theater of Western New York has issued a call for plays written by playwrights age 25 and younger.
The scripts which are chosen from those submitted will be performed by the company as part of their Young Playwrights Festival. For more information about the competition, phone the company at 634-1102, between the hours of 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., or visit their website at www.artofwny.org.
The Albright-Knox Art Gallery, in Buffalo, will open an exhibit called ''Callused.'' It is a showing of 53 works of art created by teenagers from Western New York and Southern Ontario. The exhibit will open Thursday.
The exhibit is the seventh consecutive showing of the work of young artists by the gallery, through their Future Curators program. Opening night, there will be a reception, featuring jazz music and dancing performed by area high school programs.
The gallery is located at 1285 Elmwood Avenue, in Buffalo. Their web address is www.albrightknox.org.
The Lake Arts Foundation will join with the Weeks Gallery at Jamestown Community College to present a festival of art and film programs, which will begin June 15.
The first exhibit in the gallery will be titled ''First Comes Love.'' It is made up of photography by Barbara Proud.
The opening night will feature a performance by Zili Misik, a female band known for their African rhythms, which will begin at 7:15 p.m.
The ArtParty begins at 6 p.m., and includes the exhibit, the concert, and a reception. Tickets are available from the JCC box office, in person or by phoning 338-1187. Any remaining tickets will be sold at the gallery door.
As often happens, when Albom graduated he promised he would stay in touch with his teacher, but then life happened, as it does to most of us, and the two lost touch. Years later, when Albom learned that Morrie was dying of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, a fatal neurological ailment which is more commonly known by its initials, ALS, or as ''Lou Gehrig's disease,'' after the famous baseball player who succumbed to the ailment.
Those who suffer from the disease remain lucid and clear-thinking throughout, but their bodies increasingly deteriorate, forming a progression to use of a cane, then a walker, then a wheelchair, and finally making the patient unable to get out of bed.
Albom flew from Detroit, where he was writing a highly successful newspaper column, to Boston, where his former teacher still lived. Eventually, there would be 14 visits between the two men. Albom recorded their encounters and wrote them up into a book, the income from which he used to pay the older man's skyrocketing medical bills. The book was published in 1995, and was subsequently made into a television film, starring Hank Azaria as Albom and Jack Lemmon as Morrie, in what would prove to be that actor's final major role.
The book, which topped the New York Times bestseller list for the year 2000, was adapted into a stage script by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, with input from Albom, and which starred Alvin Epstein as Morrie and Jon Tenney, of ''The Closer,'' as Albom.
Each of the three evenings of performance is a benefit for some positive force within our community. Opening night, May 10, is already sold out. Ticket sales for that evening will benefit Chautauqua Hospice. The second evening's performance will benefit the community projects of the Zonta Club. For tickets to that evening's performance, phone 753-6319.
The final evening's ticket sales will benefit the Spire, the newly created theatrical space in what used to be the Congregational Church of Jamestown. The performance will take place in the smaller theatrical space within the building. The entrance to that space is located further to the right, as you face the building, with your back to the U.S. Post Office, on Third Street. For tickets to that performance, visit the Labyrinth Press Co., at 12 E. Fourth St., in Jamestown.
A small portion of each $10 ticket sold will be donated to ALS research. Any unsold tickets to a performance will be sold at the door on the evening of the performance.
I was able to catch the director and the two actors of the production during a brief stop, before moving into the main theater at The Spire to catch the dress rehearsal of ''Godspell.''
A theatrical venue with two good, quality productions going at the same time is a bounty almost unheard of in our neck of the woods.
Directing the production will be Robert John Terreberry. He has been a major mover in our local theatrical scene. He has supported his art, both on stage, as a director, and as a producer, who has helped a wide variety of organizations to present quality performances. To name a few, there have been the Shoestring Players, the Lucille Ball Little Theatre of Jamestown, the productions of Jamestown Community College, performances at the much-lamented Bunbury Players, the performances of the Spoon River Project, in Lake View Cemetery, and independent production, performed in the theater of the Robert H. Jackson Center. And, that's just off the top of my head.
Ron Robertson is a familiar face in the local theatrical community. He and his fellow actor Adam Hughes performed roles not unlike their roles in this play a few years back at the Lucille Ball Little Theatre, where they were the entire cast of ''Visiting Mr. Green.'' He will be playing the title character.
Adam Hughes, it turns out, was the inspiration for this project in the first place. He will be performing as Mitch Albom.
''I've been wanting to do a part with some heft,'' he told me. ''I've also been wondering if I could start a project from the very beginning and see it through to the every end. When I came across this script, it seemed perfect.''
Hughes originally considered directing the play, as well as producing it and acting in a major role, but he allowed himself to be talked out of that by Tom Andolora, who was directing him in last summer's production of ''Spoon River Project.''
''Tom cautioned me that it is very hard to see yourself from the audience's point of view, and he said that often an actor may feel he is accomplishing a particular effect, when he appears to the audience to be doing something completely different,'' Hughes said. Andolora suggested Terreberry to direct the play, and Hughes is happy to have obtained his participation.
The young actor admitted that his original intent was to do all the work of presenting the play, and to feel he had earned any profits which might accrue. ''When I got started putting it all together, though, I learned that Mitch Albom had written the original book to raise money to pay Morrie's medical bills, and it just seemed wrong not to use income from the play for good purposes, as well,'' he said.
The men discussed the extensive tour around theatrical sites in Jamestown, which they performed, in search of the best place to present the play. Terreberry said that many organizations who have their own theaters were using them for their own productions. Other places have fixed costs attached to them which would put their use beyond a small company such as theirs.
Since both Albom and his mentor were Jewish, the men considered doing the play at the Synagogue, on the city's west side. ''The people at the temple really were very helpful and willing to present the play, but the actual structure of their space made impossible to use a wheelchair and a walker and all the equipment which the script requires.
Finally, they ended up at the Spire, in the beautifully repainted smaller theater. All three expressed appreciation for the facility, admiration for the acoustics of the room and gratitude for the support and assistance which they have received at the Spire.
I asked if the actors have done research beyond reading the book which was the basis for their play. Robertson said he has been watching videos of interviews which Morrie Schwartz did on ABC television with interviewer Ted Koppel to get a sense of his manner of speaking and his relationship between his stated philosophy and himself.
Robertson said that portraying the gradual physical decline of his character, while keeping the audience aware that his mental capacities are in full use, was one of the biggest challenges he has faced in his life as an actor.
I wondered if that wouldn't discourage local audiences, who have won themselves something of a reputation for refusing to attend anything which isn't light and funny. All three indicated strongly that this shouldn't be a problem.
''There is so much humor in the script,'' Terreberry said. ''Morrie's whole philosophy is that life is a wonderful thing and that people do themselves and the world a disservice by getting sidetracked from the joy of living. It's a story of a man who used every bit of life which he had in him, and I know audiences are going to really enjoy it, despite its elements of sadness.
Hughes says that his character is told by Morrie, ''You're dying from the minute you're born. You're just doing it much more slowly than I am.''
The director said he has encouraged his actors not to ''act'' at all, but to simply be the things which are described in the script. He said that one challenge of the script is that there are no throwaway lines. ''Everything one of them says is important in what the two of them do and say later, and if someone misspeaks a line or leaves something out, it puts a huge burden on the other actor to fill the audience in on what they should have learned from the missed words,'' he said.
The men expressed gratitude to community organizations and businesses who have purchased ads in the printed program which will be handed out to audience members, because the money from those ads will have to pay all their expenses in putting on the play, since ticket sale income is earmarked for the benefit of the charity and community organizations.
This production is a good thing, for a good cause, and it deserves our community's support. I hope to see you there, for one of the performances.
MITCH AND MORRIE
One evening in 1995, Mitch Albom had a life-changing experience. At the time, he was a successful sports columnist, who had achieved a very profitable sideline career as a freelance writer and a speaker. He admits that his life had become stressful, because his wife was complaining that he had to travel all the time and had little time to spend with her or to do the things which he valued for himself.
One evening, he decided to take a break from working, and turned on the television to whatever happened to be on. There he saw his favorite teacher from his four years at Brandeis University, in Waltham, Mass., being interviewed by Ted Koppel.
The interview brought back memories of taking every course which was offered at the university by Morrie Schwartz. This was especially true when he realized that Schwartz had gently reversed the interview process, asking Koppel probing questions and bringing forth deeply-felt answers which were unlike his regular on-air persona.
All through his career, Schwartz had filled his classes with his observations about the nature of life, and especially about his deeply-felt belief that our culture presses onto us standards which aren't to our benefit. He believed that people were pressured to feel embarrassed if they said something they deeply felt, or if they made a minor mistake or dared to enjoy something such as dancing, his own favorite hobby which he practiced with glee until his condition made him physically unable to do it.
When the professor was diagnosed with the fatal and wasting ailment, one of his colleagues had gathered a small collection of the nuggets of wisdom which he had dispensed, and published it. Here are just a few of Morrie's words of wisdom:
Once you know how to die, then you really know how to live.
Love always wins.
Death ends a life, but not a relationship.
Forgive yourself. Forgive others. Don't wait.
Never do work that uses, hurts or degrades people. Never make money off the sweat and pain of others.
When he graduated, Albom had promised Morrie that he would always remain in touch. Now, that he saw his former teacher discussing his own coming death, he decided to fly to Boston and visit.
The reunion of the two men was very positive, but it might have been a simple encounter. Instead, fate seemed to intervene once again. The employees of the newspaper for which he worked, went out on strike. Albom decided that rather than just sit around, awaiting the settlement of the strike, he would fly back to Boston, once per week, on Tuesdays.
The result was 14 visits, at each of which, the professor was weaker and having more trouble with simply living. Morrie's wife was a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. When her husband fell ill, she had planned to quit her job, to supervise his care, but he forbade it for several reasons.
He felt that she would need her job to support herself when he was gone. He felt that she would need her income to live while he was dying, as his was coming to an end. He felt that without her own life, she would shrivel and become closed-in by life. All of these concerns and more were part of his thinking.
Morrie was soon surrounded by caretakers and health care workers, and he enjoyed their company and the things he was able to continue doing, because of their help, but his former student's visits became a positive thing because they weren't in response to his illness, but in response to his living.
Albom went on to write a number of other works, both of fiction and non-fiction, but ''Tuesdays with Morrie'' remains his best-known and most popular creation.
I am greatly looking forward to having it all enacted right here in our own community. I hope you'll make the effort to share it all at the Spire in May.