There are some lessons you just can’t convey in a classroom, like forgiveness or guilt, like death or life. The subtleties of these things don’t lend themselves to chalkboards and textbooks. They need authentic situation to communicate themselves.
Tuesdays with Morrie is a teacher of these lessons. Originally a 1997 book by American journalist Mitch Aplom, it has since been brought to film and stage, with a two-man version of the latter unfolding in the Brackendale Art Gallery last weekend.
Morrie Schwartz, played in this rendition by Antony Holland, is a sociologist professor, one of those rare sages who inspires in his students not just admiration, but friendship, too.
Mitch Aplom, meanwhile, is the picture of success, a former student of Schwartz’s who shunned a shaky career in jazz music for a sensational one in sports journalism, a move that required only the sacrifice of his soul and sensitivity.
Though the latter promised a post-educational relationship with the former, 16 years went by after graduation, not one of them marked by contact between the two. Until Aplom saw his mentor on the news — dying from Lou Gehrig’s disease.
And so a relationship between the two starts anew. Though awkward initially, it winds up being just as rich as the original, perhaps more so, given the terminal nature of it all.
Humour plays a big role in the play, and rather mercifully. The classy and waggish way Schwartz faces his death gives lift to a creeping and intensifying melancholy, while also charging the play’s life lessons with permeating import. Schwartz’s dictates on sympathy, on fear, pain and intimacy, on the fraud of youth and the self-obsession of angst, all these things resonate without anchor in time.
As compelling as the content was the presentation. Holland heads a theatre group called No Bells and Whistles. Based out of Gabriola Island in B.C., the company adheres to the principles of minimalism. Tuesdays had almost no props — just a cellphone, a half dozen pieces of furniture, a book, a stereo and a blanket. The wardrobe changed almost not at all. Lighting was constant, about as equal on stage as off. Actor Joel Grinke, who played Aplom, had never taken the script before an audience before, and he had a copy of the text in his hands the whole time.
Rather than jolt or distract, the skeletal approach actually helped transmit the story. Gone were effects of almost any kind, and that left more in the hands of tonality, script and chemistry between actors. Fitting for a play on life lessons.