Tuesdays with Morrie

Len Cariou. (Photo credit: Jeremy Varner)

Christopher J. Domig and Len Cariou. (Photo credit: Jeremy Varner)

By: Darryl Reilly

Len Cariou’s majestic performance in Tuesdays with Morrie is a major event of the current New York theater season; he plays an eloquent 78-year-old Jewish college professor dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in this ravishing production. The 84-year-old Mr. Cariou began his career as a Shakespearean actor in his native Canada, created leading roles in historic Broadway musicals, and has appeared extensively in film and television. Here, he acts his heart and soul out in a small, picturesque space at Manhattan’s St. George’s Episcopal Church. Age has not diminished Cariou’s innate charisma which he monumentally exhibited in a cavernous theater as the first Demon Barber of Fleet Street in the original production of Sweeney Todd, for which he received the 1979 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical.

Christopher J. Domig and Len Cariou. (Photo credit: Jeremy Varner)

Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, A Young Man and Life’s Greatest Lesson, was former jazz musician turned sportswriter Mitch Albom’s 1997 bestselling memoir of his Brandeis sociology professor, Morris S. Schwartz (1916-1995). Schwartz became a celebrity when his battle with ALS was covered in the media, notably by Ted Koppel on Nightline. Albom reestablished contact with Schwartz after a 16-year absence, traveling weekly from Michigan to Massachusetts to visit him. They became teacher and pupil again, having profound conversations about the meaning of life; Jack Lemmon and Hank Azaria starred in the 1999 television movie adaptation. This faithful 2002 stage treatment was co-written by Albom and Jeffrey Hatcher.

Len Cariou. (Photo credit: Jeremy Varner)

Cariou’s beaming presence, weathered handsome leading man face and seasoned, resonant and booming voice, which spouts perfect Yiddish when required, all inform his towering portrayal of Morrie. He enters walking with a cane which he dispenses. Then he steadies himself on a piano’s edges while continually striding, and limberly dances once while grinning and twinkling; he later sits in a wheelchair. Through strategic dimness as a spotlight shines on Cariou’s shaking hand we truly experience the character’s illness progressing, at times there is harrowing choking. The wheelchair has been raised up for Cariou’s shattering simulation of dying. He is alternatively funny, thoughtful and wrenching throughout.

Christopher J. Domig. (Photo credit: Jeremy Varner)

When the audience arrives, the serene Christopher J. Domig is beautifully playing a piano in the performance area which is surrounded by the building’s arches and high ceiling. Mr. Domig’s repertoire consists of his stirring original compositions laced with wistful pop melodies; he finishes playing and begins the show as the narrator Mitch Albom. The magnetic and smooth-voiced Domig’s everyman persona endows his rich characterization of a typical American go-getter with the philosophical dimension of seeking to find what’s it all about. Domig and Cariou’s potent rapport is integral to the show’s power.

Christopher J. Domig and Len Cariou. (Photo credit: Jeremy Varner)

Director Erwin Maas guides these sparkling performances while physically staging the presentation with visual élan and momentum in a stately environment. Guy DeLancey’s minimal precise scenic design consists of the dominant piano, a walker, the elaborate wheelchair and a long red carpet. Mr. DeLancey’s stimulating lighting design varies from basic brightness to textured dimness with artful spotlights, slow fadeouts and crisp blackouts. DeLancey’s costume design is perfectly professorial for Morrie and appropriately casual professional for Albom. Sound designer Eamon Goodman and sound mixer Chris White render the music and effects with distinction, including vocalist Sally Shaw’s sunny recorded voice over appearance as Albom’s singer wife.

…when you’re an infant coming into the world, you need to be held, caressed, comforted, right? Well, when you’re LEAVING the world, you need the same things. The mystery is that in between the COMING and the going, we pretend we DON’T need it.

That is one of numerous life-affirming observations spoken in Tuesdays with Morrie, attesting to the piece’s enduring emotional resonance which is realized by this moving incarnation.

Tuesdays with Morrie (through March 23, 2024, extended April 1 – 20)
Sea Dog Theater
St. George’s Episcopal Church, 209 East 16 Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit www.seadogtheater.org
Running time: 95 minutes with no intermission


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