Sea Dog Theater Presents Tuesdays with Morrie – Still Inspiring and Relevant

When Tuesdays With Morrie was published in 1997, the book became a cultural phenomenon. Written by Mitch Albom, at that time a sports writer in Detroit, the memoir chronicled his weekly meetings with his mentor, Morrie Schwartz, who was dying from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Each week Mitch would fly to Boston, sit at Morrie’s bedside, and once again become a student, as his former Brandeis professor would expound on the facts of living and dying. Some of what they talked about was not earth shaking, sometimes even trite. But Morrie presented his thoughts in a way that could shake up those who listened. Here was a man dying, and his last act was to help others.

More than 25 years later, Tuesdays with Morrie continues to resonate and seems even more relevant, so the timing is perfect for the Sea Dog Theater’s production which stars Len Cariou as Morrie and Chris Domig as Mitch. (The original Off Broadway play ran in 2002.)

Domig, co-founder and artistic director of the Sea Dog Theater, grew up in Austria and was there with his family during the pandemic. “Of course I’m a theater maker, so I was reading plays,” he said, during a phone interview. “I picked up [Tuesdays with Morrie] during a time when I was thinking a lot about the elderly and how disproportionately Covid had affected the elderly in terms of sickness and mortality rates. I began to think about the different plays that looked at older folks dying and I realized there’s not that many plays out there for two reasons. We don’t like getting old in our culture, so we avoid it  – ironically, that’s something that Morrie mentions in the play – and, of course, we are afraid of death.”

He also found that the play spoke to what had become a loneliness epidemic and a need for rekindling friendships. “This is sort of a timeless piece,” Domig said. “The themes of friendship are universal, and the reckoning of big questions and how to re-prioritize or even reassess one’s life priorities is always relevant. We’re always being thrown about the cultural agenda,  what is important versus maybe quieter, or more substantial and life-giving agendas, such as the one that Morrie espouses and the way he lives his life.”

Domig also believes that the play speaks to friendships among men. “Boys and men don’t quite know anymore what they are being asked to be culturally speaking. There’s a lack of guidance,” he said. “We also know that men have less close friendships than women do.” In the play, Mitch resists being emotional and physically close to Morrie. “And Morrie sort of reels him in. You realize that Mitch desperately needs [that closeness]. So there’s something there that I find very important to talk about and it comes up in this play.”

Chris Domig and Len Cariou (Photo by Jeremy Varner)

Tuesdays with Morrie is a “memory play,” Domig explained, since Mitch has to keep going over what he’s learning. “That whole encounter with Morrie was a huge step in the right direction for Mitch, but he keeps recalling those experiences as he keeps living life because we live between two poles,” he said. “There’s this idea that we go back to the mentors in our life. We need to learn that lesson or learn a different aspect of that lesson. Essentially every night Mitch is going on this journey again because he needs to find another part of this relationship with Morrie that will help him to become more fully human.”

The Sea Dog Theater’s mission is telling stories of “alienation and reconciliation,” and Tuesdays with Morrie is a perfect fit. “Life is messy and complicated,” Domig said. “I’m deeply turned off by happy go lucky stories that don’t give voice to the darkness of the world, just as I am turned off by plays that are allergic to hope, or courage, or grace.”

With Morrie, “you have sickness that cannot be explained, that is unjust in many ways, and a sickness that is painful,” he said. “And then you have this man who, instead of turning in on himself, turns out to the world and gives back, and ends up mentoring so many people within this context. They are drawn to him precisely because the natural response would be to hide or become bitter and see yourself as a victim due to struggling with ALS.”

In April 2020, Cariou and Domig did a reading of the play at the theater. “It was so much fun,” Domig said. “We had a great turnout and we had so many people say `you guys would just be so great in this.’ And that was hovering in the back of my mind, but you don’t know until you do it.”

Cariou has been a big supporter of the theater and, of course, was Domig’s first choice to play Morrie. “He said yes and here we are; it’s been a two-year journey,” Domig said. “What I find so incredibly courageous is that Len is 84. As an 84 year-old there are certain health concerns that would come up at any given age, and so he’s doing this at a point in his life where I don’t think it’s very far from home. There are actors, even established actors, who would say I don’t know if I want to look at that, it’s too close to home. And he’s not not saying that at all. He’s saying if it’s close to home, I’ll use it. He’s bringing his full humanity and he’s bringing his full artistry to a situation and that is an incredibly courageous act.”

Domig admitted that there’s “a life imitating art, art imitating life thing happening” between him and Cariou, similar to the relationship that existed between Morrie and Mitch. “Len has been such a mentor and friend to me over the last three years, and Mitch says at one point in the play, `why me, why did he let me back? There were others who had been better to him.’ That’s a verbatim thing that I could ask of Len,” he said. “I’m a very passionate person, I think I’m a decent actor, I think I’m a good actor. I certainly feel confident enough to do this with Len, but I’m not a celebrity, I’m not someone that Len is going to gain any sort of leverage from. If that makes sense. Len has given all his leverage to us over the years in the readings he’s done. So I’m sort of a bit flummoxed by that generosity.” (Cariou also keeps a very busy schedule, filming the last season of the popular CBS hit, Blue Bloods.)

In 1999, the book was adapted into a television film starring Jack Lemmon as Morrie and Hank Azaria as Mitch. Any possibility for a new film? Domig said there have been conversations about doing a film and what that would look like. “I think if you were to ask me, it would be like a PBS version of it, a really well-filmed stage version,” he said. (A lot depends on timing and financing.) “It’s something our team is thinking about because this is a new way of looking at this play and then, of course, this is Len Cariou.”

Tuesdays with Morrie
Sea Dog Theater
St. George’s Episcopal Church
209 East 16th Street
Through March 23, 2024

Top: Chris Domig and Len Cariou
Photo by Jeremy Varner

About Charlene Giannetti (690 Articles)
Charlene Giannetti, editor of Woman Around Town, is the recipient of seven awards from the New York Press Club for articles that have appeared on the website. A graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Charlene began her career working for a newspaper in Pennsylvania, then wrote for several publications in Washington covering environment and energy policy. In New York, she was an editor at Business Week magazine and her articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines. She is the author of 13 non-fiction books, eight for parents of young adolescents written with Margaret Sagarese, including "The Roller-Coaster Years," "Cliques," and "Boy Crazy." She and Margaret have been keynote speakers at many events and have appeared on the Today Show, CBS Morning, FOX News, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and many others. Her last book, "The Plantations of Virginia," written with Jai Williams, was published by Globe Pequot Press in February, 2017. Her podcast, WAT-CAST, interviewing men and women making news, is available on Soundcloud and on iTunes. She is one of the producers for the film "Life After You," focusing on the opioid/heroin crisis that had its premiere at WorldFest-Houston International Film Festival, where it won two awards. The film is now available to view on Amazon Prime, YouTube, and other services. Charlene and her husband live in Manhattan.