In Tuesdays With Morrie, now at the Bristol Riverside Theatre, sportswriter Mitch Albom visits weekly with his former professor, Morrie Schwartz. Their sessions, always heavy on life lessons, include one exchange in which the elder asks the angst-ridden younger a telling question. It's not "Are you happy?" but "Are you at peace with yourself?"
Ever since Albom's memoir was published in 1997 - then became an Oprah Winfrey-produced made-for-TV movie and a stage play cowritten with Jeffrey Hatcher, and then morphed into an Albom cottage industry of inspirational books - the answer appears to be a resounding "yes."
The play follows Albom and Schwartz's rekindled friendship until the latter's death of Lou Gehrig's disease in 1995. It's sort of an anti-Godot, in which the big man's arrival is certain, and every living moment, rather than divesting itself of meaning, becomes further freighted with what Schwartz calls aphorisms, and I'll call platitudes. Example: "There's no point in loving; loving is the point."
There's kindness in Albom's portrayal of a man he truly did love, and from whom he clearly learned about finding the depth in his days. Danny Vaccaro's Albom captures the spirit of a cocky thirtysomething on the rise, loose-limbed and cloaked in a brash confidence that barely covers his youthful insecurities. My trouble with this production, directed by Susan Atkinson, and with other Morries, has generally been the same: a tendency to portray Schwartz as a sunny half-wit, rather than a 30-year Brandeis University sociologist, social justice activist, and author, with some gravitas anchoring his levity.
Despite Andrew Deppen's warmly professorial set - a woodsy, Craftsman-style home with books in every nook - Atkinson directs Richert Easley's Morrie to maintain a gape-mouthed grin that pops up whether he's having a light joke at Albom's expense or is collapsed on his own floor. He's goofy and ineffective and, while likable enough, hardly the sort of man to inspire such dedicated, quasi-filial piety.
This is a Morrie who's happy, rather than at peace, a difference that requires a layer of disingenuousness. Maybe that's the one some prefer to see. It surely smooths Schwartz's long downward slide. But it also robs us of some depth, a reminder that finding inner peace can be hard work under the easiest circumstances, and under the toughest, truly heroic.
Tuesdays With Morrie
At Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe St., Bristol, through Feb. 16.