For its first official, full-length theater production, the Writers Actors Guild will be staging an adaptation of one of the most popular and widely praised memoirs of the modern era.
In doing so, WAG hopes “Tuesdays with Morrie” will provide the fledgling collective with both the support and foundation needed to stage future, original productions penned by its members.
Founding WAG members Eva Poole-Gilson and Marcus Nobreus have put together “Tuesdays with Morrie” as a true labor of love; Poole-Gilson, as producer, has invested considerable time and personal finance in the play, while Nobreus put his life on hold in Sweden to direct “Tuesdays,” taking on one of two starring roles in the process.
Not only are the future goals of WAG and the artistic fulfillment of its members riding on the success of “Tuesdays,” but the players involved – including co-star Robert Struckman – feel a tremendous obligation to do right by the source material, to honor the story and the themes it celebrates.
And, WAG has planned a 14-show run.
What may sound daunting has actually been enthusiastically embraced by Poole-Gilson and the two-man cast. A labor of love can’t exist, after all, without love – and there’s plenty in evidence when the producer, Nobreus and Struckman talk about the play, their roles and a story they say is really all about rediscovering one’s heart.
Written in 1997 by Mitch Albom, “Tuesdays” chronicles Albom’s weekly visits with his former college professor, Morrie Schwartz, as the two men attempt to reconnect before Schwartz dies of ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease. These visits were, in reality, Schwartz’s final lessons to his dear pupil.
The two had been close upon Albom’s graduation from Brandeis University in 1979, when Albom promised to keep in touch. It would be the first in a line of broken promises, including to himself (abandoning a failing career in music for that of a globe-trotting sports journalist) and to his wife (whom the frequently-absent Albom appeases with empty assurances of a family some day). Increasingly disillusioned by celebrity and media, world-weary and even estranged from family members, Albom is foundering spiritually and existentially when fate intervenes. Flipping through the television channels one night, he hears Schwartz’s voice coming across the airwaves; his former professor and mentor is being interviewed on “Nightline” by Ted Koppel.
The chance viewing spurs Albom to reconnect with Schwartz, 16 years after he promised to keep in touch. By now, Albom writes, ALS has left Schwartz’s “soul perfectly awake, imprisoned inside a limp husk” of a body.
Albom is his complete opposite.
“Mitch has lost his spiritual center,” Nobreus said, “and Morrie sees the opportunity to reel him back in …Morrie is trying to help Mitch find his way back to life and love.”
“There’s a line at the beginning of the play where we explain that this is Morrie’s last class, and Mitch is the only student,” said Struckman. “My image of (me playing this character) is being in a trout stream, trying to catch the one that got away 16 years ago.”
Initially considered a “sleeper” when it was published 15 years ago, “Tuesdays with Morrie” was propelled to hit status by word of mouth and eventually national media exposure, spending 205 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. The book was made in to an Emmy-winning TV movie in 1999, starring Hank Azaria (as Albom) and Jack Lemmon (as Schwartz), and adapted for stage by Albom and Jeffrey Hatcher.
The overwhelming popularity of the book and movie, according to the trio staging the play locally, can be traced to the universally relatable themes involved; not just love, but also loss, and caring for someone in the last days of their life.
Poole-Gilson relates, having lost her husband 20 years ago after a debilitating stroke, and both Nobreus and Struckman can similarly draw parallels between their own lives and the experiences of the men they portray.
Nobreus lost a close friend to ALS 10 years ago. Having “followed him to his death bed,” Nobreus was particularly moved by the play when he saw it in Sweden, appreciating its messages of “healing and grieving,” and of “expressing what’s important in life.”
Struckman, a retired professor at City College of San Francisco, had befriended a student just as Schwartz had; the young man, bright and energetic, went backpacking with Struckman and his family more than once before a tragic accident left him a quadriplegic. Despite being confined to a wheelchair, paralyzed, the student has lived a successful life and has become a source of inspiration for Struckman.
“He’s the Morrie and I’m the Mitch,” Struckman said of their relationship.
It was Nobreus who chose “Tuesdays” as WAG’s first theater production. He said his main intention was only to direct, something he enjoys doing for both the stage and screen.
Nobreus moved to L.A. from Sweden when he was 26, earning an Associate of Arts degree from Santa Monica College where he majored in film theory with a minor in theater. For seven years Nobreus immersed himself in his passion – acting in nearly 20 short films as well as directing and screenwriting. Of course, theater was always central to his creative pursuits, and so it followed that upon his relocation to Mammoth Lakes, Nobreus became a staple of acclaimed Sierra Classic Theater productions and most recently those staged under the banner of Mammoth Lakes Repertory Theater.
His credits include “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” “Beyond Therapy,” “As You Like It,” “Love and Madness” and Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons,” which he also directed.
Nobreus explained that what appeals most to him about theater is “the communication” between the players on stage and the people in the audience – who are the “camera.”
“You’re interpreting a story with an emotional message to the audience and you’re trying to do it as clearly as you can without it being on the nose or over the top,” he said.
A certain degree of authenticity is key with any performance, and the extended rehearsal and preparation time of theater gives the actors that much more opportunity to “dig deeper” into the characters’ psyches and emotional layers, Nobreus said.
In the case of Nobreus and Struckman, it certainly doesn’t hurt that both actors are about the same ages of the men they’re portraying.
The two have been rehearsing together since January – first over Skype while Nobreus was still in Sweden and then on a more intensive basis leading up to Saturday’s opening.
“We’re now finding a lot more depths of character,” Nobreus said.
Struckman was essentially cast in December when Poole-Gilson, having worked with him in a play in Mammoth and familiar with his extensive theater work in San Francisco, called and offered him the part.
Struckman had previously acted with Nobreus and, also gripped by a passion for theater, suffers an inability to turn down opportunities to act.
“I guess I just always have to say yes, especially when it involves someone I’m comfortable working with,” he said.
Morrie Schwartz will actually be Struckman’s 55th stage role in a career that began in San Francisco’s Julian Theater and continued in both Bishop and Mammoth Lakes upon his retirement to the Eastern Sierra in the 1990s. In Bishop, Struckman directed, designed and performed in “On Golden Pond” and “Here Lies Jeremy Troy.”
He directed and designed “Bus Stop” and “Sylvia” in Mammoth, and most recently performed there in “The Diary of Anne Franke,” “John Brown’s Body” and “A Christmas Carol.”
Poole-Gilson also acted in the latter play, and was especially impressed with Struckman’s turn as Ebenezer Scrooge.
Local theater is how Poole-Gilson met Nobreus in February of 2010 and led to their creation of WAG later that year.
According to Poole-Gilson, she had finished writing a play in February (“Who’s Lying Down in Your Heart?”) and wanted to hear it read aloud. She realized that local actors reading a local writer would essentially create local theater – and a much-needed venue for “kindred artists.”
That spring, Nobreus helped Poole-Gilson present readings of her recently released young adult novel, “Little Star Sleeping,” around the Eastern Sierra, which led to about 40 writers and actors from Inyo and Mono counties gathering later that year to read and critique several of Nobreus’ plays.
By October, Nobreus had moved back to Sweden, and a crestfallen but still determined Poole-Gilson managed to gather 20 local actors for a read-through of “Who’s Lying Down in Your Heart?” the following February.
It became evident, according to Poole-Gilson, that her play wasn’t yet ready for the stage.
WAG is hoping “Who’s Lying Down in Your Heart?” can be its next full stage production, with Nobreus once more at the helm. The group would actually like to perform at least two productions a year in local theaters – drama or comedy – showcasing the creations of local writers by having local actors perform their work.
Poole-Gilson said WAG also wants to continue a series of readings by “new and established writers of plays, screenplays, poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction to entertain and inspire the public,” and even offer a competition of original plays, with the winner performed as the finale of a six-week theater workshop.
But first thing’s first, and that’s “Tuesdays with Morrie.”
Part of Albom’s reason for writing about his weekly visits with his mentor was to keep one last promise: to help pay off the dying professor’s medical bills. Albom kept that promise with proceeds from book sales.
And it’s here that there is yet one more parallel between the story of Mitch and Morrie and that of WAG and its first production.
“Tuesdays with Morrie” just may give WAG the boost it needs to keep a more implicit promise made to writers, actors and theater fans throughout the Eastern Sierra.