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Theater J’s tear-jerking two-hander ‘Tuesdays With Morrie’ imparts enduring life lessons

Cody Nickell, left, and Michael Russotto in “Tuesdays With Morrie,” at Theater J through Dec. 5. (Teresa Castracane/Theater J)
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There’s plenty of sharp crosstalk and good-natured nagging traded by actors Cody Nickell and Michael Russotto in “Tuesdays With Morrie,” the fact-based tear-jerker now onstage at Theater J. But it’s Russotto’s unspoken moments of unguarded despair that tug at the heartstrings with particular poignancy.

Playing Morrie Schwartz, a 78-year-old Brandeis University sociology professor with an ALS diagnosis and months to live, Russotto is effortlessly effervescent as his character doles out slices of life-affirming wisdom and tension-cutting wisecracks. As Mitch Albom, the 37-year-old Detroit sportswriter reconnecting with his ailing college mentor for weekly conversations, Nickell gracefully portrays a man who, through watching his friend die, learns how to live.

Yet, when Nickell steps offstage, and Russotto’s character briefly processes his circumstances with a crumpled face and welling eyes, the veteran actor lifts the heavy material to new heights. Although the subject matter may read as emotionally manipulative under less authentic conditions, the 2002 play’s true-life trappings — it was adapted by Albom and playwright Jeffrey Hatcher from Albom’s best-selling 1997 memoir of the same name — left me forgiving its unabashed sentimentality and tidy platitudes. Under the steady guidance of director Jenna Place, Theater J’s production toes the line between challenging and cloying with considerable care.

“Tuesdays With Morrie” draws on 14 days Albom shared with Schwartz at the professor’s Massachusetts home in 1995, 16 years after they had last spoken at Brandeis. The play smartly streamlines those events into a two-hander, giving the characters a rapport that’s equal parts teacher-student, father-son and Oscar-Felix. Along the way, Schwartz imparts a final lesson — “the meaning of life” — to his onetime protege while wrestling with a body that’s betraying a shrewd mind.

Debra Kim Sivigny’s stellar scenic design takes a line in which Schwartz describes his cozy home as a refuge of “love and warmth and honesty” and runs with it, dotting the space with details — a rotary phone, an antique banker lamp, framed family photos — that suggest a long and full life. Hanging over the set, which is colored at different points in hues of warm auburn and cold blue by Andrew R. Cissna’s pristine lighting, are autumnal leaves and the outline of the Japanese maple Schwartz watches from his window.

As for the Albom onstage, the character begins buttoned up, burying his own existential anxieties under a pile of print deadlines, radio hits and TV spots. Nickell, one of D.C. theater’s most dexterous talents, then plays his arc of self-actualization with such restraint that when the inevitable breakdown arrives — as Schwartz leads Albom to question the nature of his lucrative but all-consuming career hustle — the turn hits all the harder.

“You only have regrets if you lived life the wrong way, chasing after the wrong things,” Schwartz tells Albom. More than two decades after Schwartz’s death, those words remain alive and well onstage, ringing as true as ever.

Tuesdays With Morrie, by Jeffrey Hatcher and Mitch Albom. Directed by Jenna Place. Scenic design, Debra Kim Sivigny; costumes, Ivania Stack; lighting, Andrew R. Cissna; sound and music, Matthew M. Nielson; props, Pamela Weiner. Through Dec. 5 at the Edlavitch Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. About 100 minutes. $35-$70 in person; $60 streaming Nov. 22 to Dec. 5.

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