‘Tuesdays with Morrie' takes Janesville stage

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Ann Fiore
Thursday, March 6, 2014

JANESVILLE—In 1979, sports columnist Mitch Albom graduated from college and said goodbye to his favorite professor, Morrie Schwartz.

Sixteen years passed before Mitch saw Morrie again. This time, Morrie was on TV being interviewed by “Nightline” host Ted Koppel. Morrie was dying of Lou Gehrig's disease, but he still had important things to say.

Mitch got back in touch. They began meeting every Tuesday, and the visits turned into the professor's last class—not on sociology this time, but on living a good life.

Mitch Albom wrote “Tuesdays with Morrie” based on those conversations. The book was made into a TV movie and later a play, which Stage One will present March 13-16 and 21-23 at the Janesville Performing Arts Center.

Some might think the play will be depressing, but director Pat Thom said the heavy material is lightened by Morrie's humor.

“It's just so life-affirming,” said Thom, who has nearly 50 years of experience in local theater. “There's so much love in this play.”

“Tuesdays with Morrie” involves only two characters—Mitch and Morrie—and a minimal set. It will be shown in JPAC's small black-box theater, which forces the audience to focus on the characters, Thom said.

Zac Curtis plays Mitch, a workaholic journalist who learns that his priorities are out of whack.

“Money is not a substitute for tenderness, and power is not a substitute for tenderness,” Morrie tells Mitch in the book, encouraging him to open his heart more.

“I can tell you, as I'm sitting here dying, when you most need it, neither money nor power will give you the feeling you're looking for, no matter how much of them you have,” Morrie says.  

Curtis can empathize with Mitch. As an assistant professor at UW-Rock County, he's familiar with the pull of career over family.

“I can connect with the idea of slowing down,” he said.

Jeff Kelm plays Morrie, a character that requires some sacrifice on his part. Kelm lives in Sheboygan, works in Madison and drives to Janesville a couple of times a week for rehearsals.

“It's hard to find a community theater play with real substance,” Kelm said via email. “Although there are many funny lines in this show, it really has something important to say. And the Morrie character says most of what's important.”

Morrie and Mitch cover a lot of ground: family, money, culture, aging, forgiveness, death.

Kelm's favorite advice from Morrie: “Forgive everyone everything. When you get to the end of your life, you won't care who was right or who was wrong.”

An experienced actor, Kelm finds it a challenge to portray Morrie's declining health. The same Morrie who dances at the beginning of the play is confined to bed at the end, unable to move.

“As a healthy person myself, it is easy to forget, in the heat of the play, that I can't move my legs or my arms at certain points,” Kelm said.

Another challenge—but one Kelm likes—is discovering the right mix of humor.

“I have to leave the audience both laughing and crying, sometimes at the same time,” he said.

How should the audience feel at the end?

Thom and Curtis want people to feel hopeful—to realize that taking care of and learning from other people is a priority.

“It's not about jobs and putting in long hours,” Curtis said. “It's about connecting to people. If you keep doing that, you'll find joy in life.”

Last updated: 7:00 am Thursday, March 6, 2014

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