Tuesdays With Morrie

Mitch Albom's retelling of time spent with his favourite tutor illicits a standing ovation at the Lyric Theatre

Some of us are lucky enough during our formative years to have a teacher who imparts wisdom, passion and advice we can carry with us into our adult lives: wisdom that shapes our values, passion that spurs us on to follow our dreams, and advice that helps us carry on when we are at our lowest ebb.

Writer Mitch Albom had Professor Morrie Schwartz, and – thanks to Tuesday’s with Morrie – we can share in his learning. Albom was a student at Brandeis University in the late 1970s, where Schwartz was his professor of Sociology.

A gifted student, athlete and musician, Alborn was encouraged by Schwartz to follow his dream of becoming a jazz pianist – a dream he promised, but failed, to achieve. Instead, Alborn became a highly successful sports journalist, writing his own column in a Detroit newspaper, covering events like the Super Bowl, Wimbledon and the Olympics.

Albom also failed in his promise to stay in touch with Schwartz after leaving university. 16 years later, while watching a late night TV talk show, he witnessed his old tutor talking about his battle with motor neurone disease, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, after the famous baseball player.

Albom phoned Schwartz, who, remembering his former student despite the gap of 16 years, encouraged him to visit. Alborn flew from Detroit to Massachusetts on a Tuesday, the day of the week that Schwartz had held his lectures. That first visit led to many more – always on a Tuesday – and as Schwartz’s life slowly faded away, he became a teacher once more to one of his favourite pupils.

Albom went on to write a book about his visits, which became a bestseller, then a TV movie starring Jack Lemmon and Hank Azaria. He then collaborated with Jeffrey Hatcher to write the play, Tuesday’s With Morrie, which director and producer Breda Cashe has brought to the Lyric Theatre in Belfast for a short run.

As Albom and Schwartz respectively, Andrew Murray and Terry Byrne hold the audience rapt throughout this two-hander, which takes place on a minimalist stage set featuring little other than tall bookcases. We are first introduced to Schwartz as Albom remembers him in his earlier days: dancing a tango, sprightly, full of life and vitality.

With judicious use of spotlighting and narration, we follow the pair along their respective journeys, Albom towards reconnecting with the important things in life, Schwartz through his inexorable physical decline: first using a walking stick, then sitting in a wheelchair, then motionless in an armchair, and finally to bed.

Byrne is particularly impressive. He steals the show delivering Schwartz’s pearls of Buddhist wisdom and Jewish humour. Completely convincing as the wise old man, and with the comic timing of a Jackie Mason or George Burns, Byrne also captures the physical degeneration of Gehrig’s disease to perfection. 

One particular scene where he attempts to eat some egg salad – a favourite meal brought to him by Albom – and fails to get the fork up to his mouth, is almost unbearable to watch.

Murray’s performance is less showy, but equally impressive. Playing the straight-ish man to Byrne’s comedian could easily have been a thankless task, but Murray imbues the character of Albom with compassion, humanity and charm.

The last scenes of the play are suffused with sadness as we witness the final days of Schwartz’s life, but they are leavened by the realisation that Albom has taken on board the teaching that he has given him on their final Tuesdays together, not least of which is the insight, 'Dying is only something to be sad about. Living unhappy is something else.'

As the play ends, and the stage lights cut to black, the audience – as one – rise to their feet and applaud. There are smiles, cheers, and more than a few tears. Some clapping is interrupted by the wiping of eyes, but that’s OK. As Schwartz says, 'There’s nothing wrong with crying.'