Sunday, March 13, 2011

Tuesdays With Morrie in Elm Grove

Matt Daniels directs Don Devona and Stephen Roselin in Mitch Albom’s tribute to teaching.

By Russ Bickerstaff
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As the national dialogue about budgets, teachers and pay continues to boil, it’s nice to see an outpouring of appreciation for an often-thankless profession. The Sunset Playhouse’s latest show is a tribute to the student-teacher relationships that inspire the kind of support seen in recent days. A story that’s been around for nearly a decade and a half, Tuesdays With Morrie one man’s tribute to his favorite college professor. In the original book, Mitch Albom relates his experiences with Morrie Schwartz—an influential man who eventually succumbed to Lou Gehrig’s disease, but not before becoming a minor celebrity thanks to a couple of appearances with Ted Koppel on Nightline.

Strikingly clever playwright Jeffrey Hatcher wrote a stage adaptation of the book with Albom. That stage adaptation has seen a few local productions over the past few years. Robert Spencer made an unforgettable appearance in the title role in a Milwaukee Rep production some years ago. More recently, the Soulstice Theatre did a production featuring piano man Matt Zembrowski as Albom with Don Devona in the lead role. This month, Devona returns to the role in a Sunset Playhouse production—a staging directed by talented actor Matt Daniels with Stephan Roselin as Albom.

The Sunset Playhouse’s main stage is much more vast and spacious than the relatively intimate space Soulstice used—a space at the Marian Center which now houses the Vox Box. The Sunset’s relatively spacious Furlan Auditorium allows Devona’s performance more room to breathe—a dynamic that also seems to give him more range of expression, even if the performance here differs little from the one he rendered in the Soulstice production. Devona is charming in the role. It’s a very casual charm that solidly avoids flashy exaggeration. In a smaller space, that kind of performance ends up feeling a little light on affect and emotion. In the bigger space, Devona’s performance is given more empty space to play against. The subtlety and understatement rise to prominence.

Stephen Roselin is a seasoned actor with a deft handle on a very textured subtlety. He may not have the kind of musical showmanship that comes so easily to Zembrowski, but Roselin’s understanding of the character’s inner conflicts serve the production well.

(For those unfamiliar with the show, the character of Mitch Albom was a talented piano player who occasionally disappears behind a piano to play a few bits. It’s not real crucial to the plot as it only pops-up in the script a few times. The feeling that Albom’s ignoring his passion and talent for much of the length of the story is ever-present. There’s the piano and he’s not playing it. That powerful suggestion of unrealized potential was profoundly present in the Soulstice production. Here it’s a far more subtle suggestion, as the piano isn’t given much prominence.)

My first reaction to Roselin’s performance was a bit odd. It was something in his diction—something in the way the vowels moved out into the playhouse—I couldn’t hep but get the feeling that he was doing an impression of (former?) Milwaukee Rep resident actor Brian Vaughn. The performance grew on me over the course of the play . . . Albom had neglected his musical inclinations in favor of a career in sport journalism—both print and broadcast. Roselin seems to be channeling Joe Buck here. He’s got a solid, confident presence with a wide-resonant voice for broadcasting. Roselin’s attention to that dynamic in the character of Albom makes the awkward moments of silence between Albom and Morrie seem all the more uncomfortable. Here’s this guy who is paid to confront some of the most physically powerful, wealthiest men in the country and he doesn’t know what to say to an old man dying of a crippling disease. It’s a very vivid dynamic. 

Director Matt Daniels has found a way to hold together the action of a two person drama and make it work pretty well in a space that would almost seem large enough to dilute the intensity of the drama. The sound of the piano may be a bit muffled, but the action of the drama flows through the empty space with a pleasant sense of grace. 

The Sunset Playhouse’s production of Tuesdays With Morrie runs through April 3rd. For reservations, call 262-782-4430.

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