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Don’t miss ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’ at Lee Street

By Deirdre Parker Smith
deirdre.smith@salisburypost.com

Bring tissues to “Tuesdays with Morrie” playing at Lee Street theatre this weekend and next.

Bob Paolino as professor Morrie “Coach” Schwartz and Ed Whitney as driven sportswriter Mitch Albom will make you laugh, think, cry and believe in the power of love.

Brian Daye, who appeared as Hoke on the same stage in “Driving Miss Daisy,” is the director for this true story. The three of them, director and actors, pull much emotion from the play — but it’s not maudlin or cloying. You will believe in the relationship.

The play is baed on the book by Mitch Albom that stayed on bestseller lists forever. The book and the encounter with his former sociology professor, completely changed Albom’s life. If he was successful before the book, he became a superstar afterwards.

Albom can thank Morrie for that success. He has talent, but his talks with Morrie give him the humanity he’s lost or ignored.

Whitney, who plays a frightening bad guy when called to, has a vulnerability here. He looks lost and clueless as he tries to deal with seeing his former mentor and learning the man has ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease — a fatal illness.

Paolino is one lucky man to get to play Morrie, a likable guy who loves teaching, loves his students and loves to dance. A little eccentric? Sure, but for all the right reasons. His lessons on life, while dying, are the things we need to hear over and over: Don’t wait to tell someone how much you love them and what they mean to you. Don’t run around like a madman to be successful, you’ll miss out on what matters most — love, family, kindness. Don’t regret — and if you do, make some changes to alleviate it. Give each other a break. Listen. Hear.

Mitch is so busy driving himself to distraction, taking on extra assignments, doing television, radio, making appearances, booking big interviews. He talks about how pathetic it is that a 37-year old man has to beg a half-naked 19-year-old for an interview.

Mitch has had a girlfriend for seven years. Morrie tells him, “Don’t rush into anything now,” with a smirk.

What starts as a one-time visit after Mitch learns on “Nightline,” Ted Koppel’s news program, that Morrie has ALS becomes a serious commitment to be with him every Tuesday until … the end. Koppel did a multi-part series with Morrie, called “Lessons on Living” in the mid-1990s. Morrie says, “Don’t go too soon, but don’t hang on too long, either.”

Mitch begins the visits afraid of emotions, afraid of giving in to his feelings. Then he learns life lessons from Coach, as he calls Morrie. Coach has seen a lot, survived tough times, thrived when he’s teaching. He loves it when Mitch comes to him with big questions, and loves all the letters he gets, each of which is answered, with the help of Mitch and a number of other people.

Because the play is completely focused on these two men who never leave the stage, unless it’s just for a moment, they have to be up to the challenge of playing the deep emotions. Two silent nurses change the set, bring Morrie out in his walker, then his wheelchair, then a couch, then a hospital bed.

Whitney and Paolino talk and talk and talk, so they’ve either done a great job memorizing, or a great job becoming the character to the point that they can speak as Morrie and Mitch. Probably, it’s both.

There were few dry eyes in the small opening night audience by the end, when the inevitable happens.

The play is staged with audience on all four sides, so the men must address each side at some point during the evening, and they do. Sometimes what’s on their faces is hard to look at.

This is a play that you should see — especially if you have aging parents or friends. And you must heed Morrie’s sage advice. He doesn’t say anything you haven’t thought of or heard before. But he makes you want to take action and Mitch does the world a favor by bringing that message so sweetly and with such force.

The play is just under 2 hours, with a 15-minute intermission. Younger children won’t understand the relationship, but teens certainly will, as will adults of all ages. It continues tonight and Saturday and Oct. 20-22 at 7:30 p.m. It is sponsored by Cloninger Ford. The theatre is at 329 N. Lee St. For tickets, call 704-310-5507 or go to www.leestreet.org.

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