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A less sentimental Tuesdays with Morrie at Justice Theater Project

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In all likelihood, I probably am still recalibrating my own aesthetic compass after the National Theatre of Scotland's Black Watch mounted its formidable challenge against political, artistic—and critical—complacency in Chapel Hill two weeks ago. (For more on that amazing show, please see my review on Artery.) Still, I didn't experience the exuberance most of my critical colleagues apparently did over the Justice Theater Project's production of Tuesdays with Morrie. A 2006 production at PlayMakers Rep, which provoked not only a standing ovation but cheers from its opening-night audience, was clearly more successful than this version, the directorial maiden voyage of Andy Hayworth, a longtime behind-the-scenes theatrical stalwart in the region. On the other hand, the 2006 version was also considerably more sentimental, a factor which actually weighs heavily in favor of this present production. The PlayMakers version firt gave us a chillier take on sportscaster Mitch Albom before quickly dissolving him in the transcendental warmth of sociology professor/ life coach Morrie Schwartz.

In this new production, Hayworth and actor David Henderson craft a significantly different Mitch—one whom I believe a lot more. Frankly, this Mitch is more than a bit of a jerk, a driven, type-A personality, constantly on the run, forever deferring his personal feelings and relationships in pursuit of the next byline, satellite feed or interview. Yes, we think, that's what a first-tier network sports journalist acts like, and Henderson ably drives it home.

And he keeps on doing it—again, to this production's distinct credit. For the clues were already there on the page: In his first encounter in years with his one-time mentor, there is no magical transformation that instantly resolves Mitch's longstanding issues with intimacy, trust and vulnerability—an insight largely lost in the show's previous incarnation.

No, dysfunctions are hard to change. After it's been damaged, the human heart tends not to budge without therapy and long-term effort. We see that fact reflected in this production. Midshow, Mitch yells at Morrie, "I don't want to be helpless!" at the peak of a real argument, with velocity and heat—and he doesn't immediately stand down thereafter. This we believe, over conflicts considerably more stage-managed in the show's previous incarnation.

Actor John Honeycutt has what any actor knows is the unenviable task of playing a saint. In Jeffrey Hatcher and Albom's script, the only flaw in Morrie's character is revealed late in the show, in the context of a childhood failing. Honeycutt's research into Lou Gehrig's Disease informs a moment where it takes all of Morrie's remaining physical strength and concentration to lift a forkful of egg salad to his mouth. Again, kudos to the director for not rescuing the character and audience from the uncomfortable reality of this disease.

But productions of Tuesdays walk a tightrope. If Mitch doesn't keep at least some of his considerable defenses up until very late, the front rows will surely drown in the gooey sentiments of a veritable theatrical Easter bunny melting on the stage. But if he keeps too many up, we'll wonder if his character has actually undergone a change at all.

Last Friday night, I saw two very credible performances. At the same time, though, the chemistry between the two never fully convinced me that this Mitch and Morrie had ever bonded on as deep a level as the script and book demand. Perhaps it had to do with Mitch's ongoing defenses; perhaps it was some other, intangible factor between the two. As Deb Royals' rendition of "The Very Thought of You" played in the background, an existential distance between characters that never fully closed reminded me briefly of another jazz-era tune: the more cautionary and melancholic love song, "Alone Together."

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