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'Tuesdays' promises uplifting look at life in shadow of death

| Friday, Aug. 1, 2014, 8:57 p.m.
Joe Domencic plays Mitch Albom and Ron Siebert is Morrie Schwartz in Mountain Playhouse's 'Tuesdays with Morrie.'
Mountain Playhouse
Joe Domencic plays Mitch Albom and Ron Siebert is Morrie Schwartz in Mountain Playhouse's 'Tuesdays with Morrie.'

Sportswriter Mitch Albom was single-mindedly pursuing his career when he happened to see his former sociology professor Morrie Schwartz speaking with Ted Koppel on “Nightline.”

Schwartz, then 78 years old, was dying of ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease. ALS causes a gradual loss of voluntary muscle control, leading to eventual paralysis and death. However, Schwartz was remarkably upbeat, sharing his wisdom and insight with a good humor that Albom found irresistible.

Albom flew to Boston to visit Schwartz, repeating his visits for 14 Tuesdays until Schwartz passed away in November 1995. Those visits changed Albom's life forever. He chronicled their impact in his 1997 memoir “Tuesdays With Morrie,” which became a best-selling book and was made into a television movie.

The stage version of the story, co-written by Albom and Jeffrey Hatcher, will be presented at the Mountain Playhouse this month as part of its 75th anniversary season.

While the subject matter is weighty, the play is anything but grim. It is full of humor, music and inspiration.

“It's a very smartly done adaptation of the book,” director Guy Stroman says. “It's funny, insightful and poignant. It's not about how to die; it's about living.”

Schwartz lived his life to the fullest and urged others to do the same. “Just because we get older doesn't mean we stop growing,” Stroman says. “We don't stop learning and living.”

That message is at the heart of the play, which is meant to inspire and uplift its audience. “They'll leave lighter and more enlightened in their lives,” Stroman says.

Ron Siebert portrays Morrie Schwartz.

“(Ron) brings such warmth and commitment and ease to the play, and that's what Morrie showed on camera,” Stroman says. Interestingly, Siebert was a theater major at Brandeis, the same university where Schwartz taught, although the two had never met.

Through his role, Siebert has absorbed many of Schwartz's life lessons. “He said, ‘Love is the only rational act. Without love we are birds with broken wings,'” Siebert says. “That about sums up his outlook on life.”

He says that Schwartz also urged people to accept and be true to themselves. “The play has such a strong positive message,” Siebert says.

The play's episodic format is enhanced by piano music courtesy of Joe Domencic, who portrays Mitch Albom. Albom started college as a music major but switched to sociology because he so enjoyed Schwartz's classes. Domencic is an assistant professor of musical theater at Seton Hill University.

“Music was Mitch Albom's first love,” producer Teresa Stoughton Marafino says. “Joe Domencic has led the life that Mitch Albom wanted.”

Marafino's father, Mountain Playhouse founder Jimmie Stoughton, died of ALS in 1972. The Mountain Playhouse will donate $5 of every ticket purchased to the Western Pennsylvania chapter of the ALS Association. Tickets will be available at the Johnstown Walk to Cure ALS on Aug. 2 at Pitt-Johnstown.

Cynthia Bombach Helzel is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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