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Dramatized by Albom and Jeffrey Hatcher, the play version of “Tuesdays with Morrie” now graces the stage of the Sierra Madre Playhouse. I mean “graces” quite literally. Schwartz’s peaceful openness provides a strong balance to Albom’s focused energy, and in the process offers up the lessons about calm acceptance, the humor in life, and the inevitability of its finalities. All this happens in a gentle series of conversations kept active and engaging by director L. Flint Esquerra’s subtle choreography.
Jackson Kendall plays Mitch Albom, both narrator and and participant in the dialogues which so shaped his world. Kendall balances the intensity of a man dashing from event to event with his character’s inner desire to get back to something more meaningful. Larry Eisenberg, as Morrie Schwartz, a man at home in his own life and, even as it begins to betray him, his own body makes realistic, convincing shifts required of advancing ALS, without being maudlin or losing the sense of the man behind the disease.
Indeed, Eisenberg’s humorous delivery underscores the practical positivity which made the encounters between the two men worth recording. So too the production, which allows for audience empathy without ever reaching a place where tragedy is the preeminent theme.
Set designer Amanda Knehans has provided a polished yet homey space capable of changing with the storyline without need for actual shifts of scenery, allowing the story to flow unimpeded through time. This it does, as “Tuesdays with Morrie” is performed without intermission, a choice which can sometimes feel long but in this instance proves exactly what the arc of these encounters needs.
Though it is true that watching someone convincingly disintegrate under the ravages of ALS may sound excruciating, in this production that proves not to be the case. Rather, one ends up focused on the profound legacy Morrie leaves behind for all of us, and not just Mitch Albom.
“Tuesdays with Morrie” plays in brief overlap with “Stuart Little,” SMP’s annual program for young people.
What: “Tuesdays with Morrie” When: through March 31, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, except March 17. A special “Pay What You Can” performance will take place at 7 p.m. Monday, March 18 Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre. How Much: $40 general, $36 seniors 65+, $20 students 21 and under. Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org
Since 1983 the film “A Christmas Story” has been a part of many a family’s holiday traditions. Based on the writings of Jean Shepherd it offered nostalgia for a simpler time in small-town America. There, a boy in the midst of the usual drama of growing up, focuses on convincing either Santa or his parents to bring him the one thing he wants most for Christmas: a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock and “this thing which tells time”.
More recently the tale has become a play, based not just on the film but on other nostalgic Shepherd’s writings. Done right, it can have the same charm as the film in a more immediate format.
Now at Sierra Madre Playhouse comes a chance to see it done right. From gifted child performers to solid and artful direction, through a remarkable-for-SMP set (considering the size of their stage) and a unified sense of ensemble, there is much to enjoy in what even the theater’s artistic director pegs as “one of the most ambitious plays” they have ever mounted.
The children in the production, and there are seven strong character parts for young people in the play, are double-cast. In the version I attended Ralphie was played by Julian Moser, whose earnestness and subtlety of character carried the production in impressive fashion. Myles Hutchinson and Jude Gomez were equally convincing as Ralphie’s two pals,
Daisy Kopolowsky, as the class brain, and particularly Xochitl Gomez-Deines, as the girl with eyes for Ralphie, provided that intriguing underlay of pending adolescence. Gideon Cooney Lebano, required mostly to be menacing, proved imposing as the school bully. Marshall Gluck makes nice work of Ralphie’s somewhat odd little brother.
But to lay the success of this production entirely at the feet of its talented youth would be to miss several other performances of note. As Ralphie’s imposing, world-weary teacher, and as the store employee serving as Santa’s definitely disenchanted elf, Danon Dastugue finds the neat balance between humor and bitterness which makes both characters highly entertaining.
Richard Van Slyke makes Ralphie’s father’s obsessions and character quirks as naturally warm as the tale permits, while Andrea Stradling proves the epitome of the midwestern, midcentury mom. Jackson Kendall gives the adult Ralph looking back on this storyline a lot more character than that of simple narrator, providing the glue which holds the piece together.
All these fine folks operate in this episodic tale on Charles Erven’s remarkable, and impressively flexible set, which lighting designer Derek Jones transforms, along with portions of SMP’s audience space, into something bigger than one thought could fit into this size of theater. The costumes courtesy of Shon LeBlanc, long known for his sense of period, round out the visuals in important ways. Still, the ensemble, the flow and movement of the piece, and the unified spark which push this show to its potential land solidly at the feet of director Christian Lebano. His affection for this show and his understanding of the need to pacing tight make the whole enterprise work.
So, if you are looking for something to watch to get you into the holiday mood, but have had enough of A Christmas Carol to last you awhile, why not try this show. It’s a change of pace, it’s very well done, and it will leave you thinking warm thoughts about the spirit, and the silliness, of this time of year. Children are more than welcome, though very young ones may find its humor goes over their heads.
What: “A Christmas Story” When: through December 31, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, with added performances at 8 p.m. Tuesday, December 19, Wednesday, December 20, and Thursday December 14 and 21 Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd in Sierra Madre How Much: $36 general, $33 seniors (65+), $21 youth to age 21 Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org