When Mitch Albom was an undergraduate at Brandeis University, his favorite professor was Dr. Morrie Schwartz, a sociology professor and recognized campus guru. Albom became a fixture in Dr. Schwartz’s classes and office, and he promised to “keep in touch” after graduation. He didn’t. Sixteen years passed before he “accidentally” came across Morrie again. Morrie appeared on ABC’s Nightline; he had contracted Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS) and turned his brilliant mind from the job of living to the job of dying. This turn of events brought Mitch and Morrie back together; every Tuesday from that point until long after his death, Mitch spent Tuesdays with Morrie. Mitch wrote the play of that name with Jeffrey Hatcher; the work is the current production of the Justice Theatre Project at the St. Francis of Asissi Church in Raleigh.

Tuesdays with Morrie is a deceptively simple work that has a powerful and oft-unheeded message: once you learn how to die, you learn how to live. It is this simple and direct statement that Morrie spends his last days teaching Mitch – that life is not a timeline but a sharing. Mitch (David Henderson, Uncle Vanya, Art) comes from Detroit or from wherever his journalist life has taken him to a small Massachusetts town to visit Morrie (John Honeycutt, Our Town, Working) each Tuesday. During that time, he asks questions of Morrie and Morrie responds with his own unique view of life and death, from one who has lived seventy years of life and has now focused on death. His candor and understanding of both is a revelation, and he gives Mitch the tools he needs to go on after his beloved professor succumbs to the death they both know will claim him.

Watching Honeycutt and Henderson work together is a real treat for the avid theatergoer. Using an in-the-round intimate setting, director Andy Hayworth leaves most of the stage bare but for an easy chair and an old vintage record player. Honeycutt has learned much of what many of us have never had to learn: how to operate a walker and a wheelchair, to name only two. His portrayal of a dying man in all his stages of decline is an amazing process to witness. Henderson, for his part, goes from being a man too busy to live, according to Morrie’s philosophy, to a man who learns what it means to slow down, become aware of his surroundings, and share his life with those he loves. Both these men go slowly but irrevocably down these two paths, apart and yet together; watching these actors take these difficult steps together is a wonder to witness.

Morrie and Mitch discuss many topics that we as fellow humans should understand, but these are not easy topics to study. Morrie has taken this journey, not because he wants to but because he has to; necessity has turned his brilliant mind from studying sociology, the study of life, to an up-close-and-personal study of death, in all its stages. He tells Mitch, “You are dying, too; only it’s much more slowly.” These insights are what bring Mitch to the understanding that death is “only” a part of life – that death ends a life but not a relationship. It is this understanding that Albom wishes to pass on to the viewer: that when we learn how to die, we truly learn how to live. For a long time after Morrie died, Mitch continued to visit him at his gravesite; as Morrie had requested, “now you talk, and I’ll listen.”

Tuesdays is a microcosm of the birth-to-death timeline that we all walk. But it is a revelation to most of us, who stumble along without understanding that we are here, first and foremost, to love and connect with our fellows; and that, if we miss this truth, we are lost, indeed.

Tuesdays with Morrie is a part of the Justice Theatre Project’s Family series, which began with Our Town and will end in June with Samm-Art Williams’ North Carolina play, Home. As a part of the production, the local chapter of the ALS Association, the Jim “Catfish” Hunter chapter, mans a booth in the lobby to give patrons a better understanding of the disease.

This play continues through February 27. For details, see the sidebar.