Schwartz taught sociology at Brandeis University from 1959 to 1995, when he was beginning to lose control of his body to ALS, (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Sixteen years after his graduation, Albom was reunited with his favorite professor, and the time they spent together before Schwartz’s death resulted in the 1997 nonfiction novel, “Tuesdays with Morrie,” written by Albom.
Lynn Sorrell has portrayed Lou Gehrig during events sponsored by the ALS Association Tennessee Chapter — memorizing Gehrig’s famous 1939 farewell speech at Yankee Stadium — but on May 10-12, he will assume the title role in the Kingsport Theatre Guild’s production of “Tuesdays with Morrie.”
Sorrell, executive director of Contact-Concern of Northeast Tennessee, has appeared in several KTG productions, but none requiring this much memorization and none broaching such a sensitive topic.
“These people are not to be pitied,” Sorrell said. “They understand something that we don’t.”
ALS is a neurodegenerative disease that usually attacks both upper and lower motor neurons and causes degeneration throughout the brain and spinal cord. The cause of ALS is not completely understood. While there is not a cure or treatment today that halts or reverses ALS, there is one FDA-approved drug that modestly slows the progression of ALS.
Most commonly, the disease strikes people between the ages of 40 and 70, and as many as 30,000 Americans have the disease at any given time.
Jane Luethke, patient services coordinator with the ALS Association Tennessee Chapter, currently provides services to about 40 patients living with ALS and their families, but knows of others not utilizing the chapter’s resources.
“I lost 23 last year,” she said. “About half of those were in the Tri-Cities area.”
While Luethke works daily with patients, caregivers and family members, Sorrell has lost friends to the disease. He’s read “Tuesdays with Morrie” and seen the 1999 TV movie of the same name, starring Jack Lemmon and Hank Azaria.
KTG’s one-act production was chosen specifically for ALS Awareness Month. It has a cast of two — Steve Humphrey has the role of Mitch — and is directed by Kenn Naegele.
Certain allowances have been made for the stage. While many patients with ALS are reduced to speaking in a whisper, or lose the ability to speak altogether, Sorrell’s Morrie will speak with a loud, clear voice throughout.
“The real Morrie wasn’t able to speak above a whisper at the end, but you can’t do that on a stage,” Naegele explained.
KTG isn’t using a lot of props either. The only scene, aside from Mitch’s imagination, is Morrie’s bedroom, and Morrie will go from a cane to a walker, then use a wheelchair until he’s bedfast.
During their weekly visits, Morrie shares his life experiences and wisdom with his former student, in essence changing Mitch’s life. The production might hit a little close to home for audience members affected by ALS, but Naegele believes “Tuesdays with Morrie” is a story that needs to be told.
“It’s very sad, but overall it’s about Morrie teaching Mitch how to live,” he said. “You can’t help but be sad because you get to love Morrie and don’t want to see him die. It’s way more about how you live your life than Morrie dying.”
“It’s about courage,” Luethke added. “It’s not that they think they can beat it, but they’re going to go down with dignity.”
The local ALS chapter will have a presence outside the theater during the production, with information available about the services it offers to patients with ALS and their families.
“Tuesdays with Morrie” will be presented at 7 p.m., May 10-11; and 2 p.m; May 11-12, at the Renaissance Center Theater. Tickets are $12. For tickets or more information, call 392-8427 or visit www.kingsporttheatre.org.