L.A. in Peterborough
James Whitmore and James Whitmore, Jr., return for Tuesdays with Morrie
By Heidi Masek firstname.lastname@example.org
Death and love. Not things that two grown men necessarily chat about. Tuesdays with Morrie is Detroit sports writer Mitch Albom’s collection of conversations he had with his former professor, who was facing death from a degenerative disease. The Brandeis University alum hadn’t contacted Morrie for 16 years, until a Nightline program where Ted Koppel interviewed Morrie about facing death prompted Mitch to get on a plane to Boston.
This staging is unique because the actors portraying professor and student are father and son James Whitmore and James Whitmore Jr. Also, the play that Albom developed with playwright Jeffery Hatcher is more about how the book came to be – Albom started writing it to help Morrie pay his hospital bills.
Whitmore’s list of stage and screen accolades extends to the 1940s. One of his more recent roles was the librarian in The Shawshank Redemption. He’s performed in Peterborough for decades. The Whitmores performed together at Peterborough Players last year in Inherit the Wind.
The Wednesday opening had one moment of improv while Whitmore was getting the hang of driving a motorized chair around the stage. The scenery was sparse, starting with a black empty stage and piano. The set for Morrie’s home was simple and convincing as a West Newton, Mass., interior. Whitmore delivered with just a trace of Kennedy-style Boston accent, and Whitmore Jr. blamed problems on Logan airport. These factors reinforced the audience’s proximity to the events.
Whitmore’s Morrie had lightning-fast timing, while Whitmore Jr. set him up with a more contemplative pace. Whitmore did justice to his character’s profound comebacks, arguments and questions, teaching a former student who has substituted work for life. He gave a sense that the real Morrie was a larger than life, sensitive, sage, devoted teacher. Whitmore Jr.’s portrayal of anguish, guilt and discomfort was compelling, but it also seemed his job was very much as a supporting actor for his father. Whitmore’s portrayal of the progress of the ALS was frighteningly believable.
Morrie’s dying directives to love everyone, give of yourself, and know that survival requires human contact and companionship sound simplistic, like a concept either forgotten or given up on although the story is only 10 years old. But that’s from a twenty-something point of view. Maybe the gray-haired audience thought differently.
Tuesdays with Morrie continues at Peterborough Players, 55 Hadley Road, in Peterborough until Sunday, July 9. Tickets are $33 and $38 on Saturdays.