You can often pinpoint your favorite moment in a particular stage performance, when an actor does something so fresh or unexpected or wonderfully human that the worlds of fictional "reality" and actual reality blur in the most extraordinary way. Ray Gabica, in My Verona Productions' current presentation of Tuesdays with Morrie, doesn't provide one of these moments. If you try really hard, though, you might be able to narrow your favorites down to about 50.
In this adaptation of Mitch Albom's best-selling memoir directed by C.J. Langdon and Tristan L. Tapscott, Gabica plays Morrie Schwartz, a gregarious sociology professor nearing the end of his life, and perhaps it takes a lifetime of acting to give a performance this good. We first see the character in a reverie delivered by Albom himself (Adam Michael Lewis), who envisions his former - and favorite - Brandeis instructor dancing with unselfconscious delight. By the play's end, Mitch will have seen Morrie succumb, shrunken and paralyzed, to the ravages of Lou Gehrig's Disease.
Yet in the time spent between those two images, Gabica gives a portrayal of such expressive, expansive intelligence and joy that it leaves you both shaken and positively elated, and does it without once calling attention to his greatness (which, truth be told, is something that can't be said of Jack Lemmon's much-lauded performance in 1999's TV movie Morrie).
When Gabica, in the relatively early stages of Morrie's illness, has a lengthy coughing fit, his entire face goes red and his pain appears genuine; the character's physical turmoil here is so palpable that it haunts you throughout the show, giving weight to every Morrie line (even every laugh line) that follows. When, after Mitch brings the professor his lunch, Gabica struggles to lift a fork to his mouth - a stage action that takes more than a full minute to execute - his physical exertion is coupled with wrenching embarrassment at his inability to complete the task. Yet, incredibly, the actor doesn't make scenes such as these a trial to sit through. Gabica is enough of a natural showman to understand the inherent thrill in watching an actor go for broke; he doesn't gloss over the character's tragic state, but never makes Morrie a mere object of pity.
He's also smart enough to keep the role's sentimentality in check. Lines such as "When you learn how to die, you learn how to live" and "There is no point in loving; loving is the point" could sound unbearably treacly coming from a cutesy Morrie, but throughout the production, Gabica remains remarkably tough-minded. He does a superb job of de-sentimentalizing the role, and thankfully, the script - co-written by Albom and Jeffrey Hatcher - allows Morrie to be as funny as he is profound. (Gabica proves to be a stellar comedian; his wittiest moments come as under-his-breath throwaways.) Those who may dread Tuesdays with Morrie's "touchy-feely" qualities - a phrase that both Morrie and Mitch routinely poke fun at - might be shocked at how spectacularly Gabica, and his co-directors, balance the cornball with the honestly emotional.
In Mitch's scenes with Morrie, Lewis is awfully good. In addition to delivering continually unpredictable line readings, his rapport with Gabica buzzes with the sort of electric give-and-take shared by really close friends, and you can sense Lewis' delight in sharing the stage with him.
I wish he appeared as relaxed during his monologues. In the My Verona oeuvre, playing real-life characters who speak to the audience is becoming something of a specialty for Lewis, yet the excitable, over-caffeinated rhythms that worked for his David Sedaris and Bill Hicks portrayals feel too practiced here, and a little shrill; Lewis is working too hard to make his one-man-show moments feel like actual one-man shows. The character of Mitch, a famed columnist with TV credentials, is supposed to be a bit glib and "Hollywood," but Lewis treats too many of his soliloquies (especially the early, expository ones) as stand-up routines; the actor appears much more comfortable - and is infinitely more varied - when he has Gabica to partner with.
Thankfully, these sequences constitute the majority of the play, and as Mitch comes nearer and nearer to the realization that his mentor is, indeed, going to die, Lewis' portrayal becomes quietly, devastatingly moving (as the earned sniffling among several in Saturday's audience would attest). The pair's final embrace is about as beautiful an expression of love as you're likely to see on the stage, and thanks to the achingly pure performances of Lewis and the astonishing Gabica, Tuesdays with Morrie - the most fully satisfying My Verona production I've seen since 2005's Closer - lingers in your memory long after it ends. The actual Morrie Schwartz, I'm guessing, would love that.
For tickets, call (309) 786-7733 extension 2.