IRT ‘Tuesdays’ provides lesson for any day

By John Lyle Belden

Morrie Schwartz wrote his own epitaph: “A Teacher to the Last.” But the lesson hasn’t ended; he’s still teaching us about life today.

The old college professor’s wisdom was captured by friend and former student Mitch Albom in his bestselling book, “Tuesdays With Morrie.” The stage play, adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher, is presented by Indiana Repertory Theatre through Feb. 21. The production, directed by Benjamin Hanna with Ryan Artzberger as Mitch and Henry Woronicz as Morrie, was recorded on the IRT mainstage earlier this month by local Public Television station WFYI for viewing online.

Mitch had treasured his time with Morrie at Brandeis University, taking every one of the old man’s Sociology classes. They inspired him to follow his dream of becoming a jazz pianist after college. But life has a way of killing one’s dreams, so Mitch turned to his other talent, writing, and became a successful sportswriter and columnist. He left Morrie’s gentle guidance in the past, embracing the hard-hitting world of chasing the next deadline.

Until the night he happened to watch an episode of “Nightline.”

Morrie’s life had changed as well. His spry energy – he loved to dance – was failing him, and it was discovered he had ALS (popularly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and, at most, months to live. His decision to confront dying head-on, ironically enriching his life, got the attention of local media, and eventually Ted Koppel.

Upon learning of Morrie’s condition, Mitch took a brief moment from his frantic schedule to pay him a visit. It was only going to be one Tuesday afternoon, but he eventually went back, and kept returning to Morrie’s Massachusetts home every week until the professor was gone. Ever the journalist, Mitch asked questions, which his mentor gladly answered, re-cementing a bond that not even death could break.

The script by Albom and Hatcher is loaded with refreshing drops of wisdom by Schwartz – a welcome relief from the spiritual drought of this last year – delivered with sincere joy by Woronicz, who also contemplated life’s final chapters in his previous IRT role in “Morning After Grace.” Artzberger, a familiar face to local audiences, also played Mitch at the IRT about a decade ago, and comfortably still fits Albom’s shoes.

Like real life (which this is based on), there are many sad and heart-touching moments, but there is also an abundance of humor natural to the exchange of quips between a wise teacher and the student who doesn’t realize he has so much to learn, or between two souls who truly love one another. The overall arc is uplifting, something we all need right now.

To take this master class in life, visit irtlive.com. A $30 virtual ticket gives access to those gathered around the screen, perhaps the IRT’s best value (though your friends should consider hitting that “donate” button).

IRT mystery with murder, mayhem and Moriarty

By John Lyle Belden

Would you recognize Sherlock Holmes if you saw him? That question is at the heart of “Holmes and Watson,” a mystery by Jeffrey Hatcher opening the 2018-19 season at Indiana Repertory Theatre.

The play is set on a remote Scottish island, several years after Holmes is believed to have died, gone over a Swiss mountain waterfall with his archrival Moriarty. (Tired of the character, author Arthur Conan Doyle offed the detective in “The Final Problem.” Bowing to public pressure, he brought Holmes back to life 10 years later.) Dr. Watson (played by Torrey Hanson) has been debunking the many impostors claiming to be the miraculously surviving Sherlock Holmes. Now, in an old fortress and lighthouse converted to an asylum, he is confronted with three.

The facility’s head, Dr. Evans (Henry Woronicz) presents a trio of distinctly different men (Michael Brusasco, Nathan Hosner and Rob Johansen), all claiming to be the detective. Having otherwise only seen an orderly (Ryan Artzberger) and the Matron (Jennifer Johansen) in the building, Watson surmises the three men are the only inmates. The mystery deepens as we discover that there has been a murder prior to Watson’s arrival, and a mysterious woman at large.

I dare not say more, so you can unravel this for yourself at the show. We tend to think of Sherlock Holmes as a singular character, but we are presented by three different but familiar archetypes: the classic Holmes of old films, the adventurous Sherlock of Benedict Cumberbatch, and the odd iconoclast reminiscent of Jonny Lee Miller in “Elementary.” We also noticed a clue – never noted by anyone on stage – that could be an insight into what’s really going on.

These amazing actors all put in excellent work. I don’t want to give individual praise for fear of giving away a secret, but suffice to say all are perfectly suited to characters where any of them may not be whom they seem.

The play is directed by former IRT artistic director Risa Brainin, who is familiar with Hatcher’s works, as well as the man himself. Robert Mark Morgan’s brilliant stage design contains sweeping layered curves, suggesting an aperture or the eye’s iris, opening and closing as the focus of the inquiry shifts.

Though not by Doyle, this drama fits right in the world he wrote for Holmes, with a tantalizing mystery worthy of the canon, complete with plot twists you’d see on an episode of “Masterpiece.”

“Holmes and Watson” runs through October 21 at the IRT, 140 W. Washington St., downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-635-5252 or visit http://www.irtlive.com.