Tuesdays With Morrie turned into Mandarin play by Godot Theatre Company

Taiwan-based Godot Theatre Company's Mandarin stage adaptation of Tuesdays With Morrie stars Pu Hsueh-liang (left) and King Shih-chieh.
Taiwan-based Godot Theatre Company's Mandarin stage adaptation of Tuesdays With Morrie stars Pu Hsueh-liang (left) and King Shih-chieh.PHOTO: GODOT THEATRE COMPANY

A Mandarin stage adaptation of Mitch Albom's 1997 best-selling memoir Tuesdays With Morrie will come to Singapore this week.

The production by Taiwan-based Godot Theatre Company revolves around a series of meetings between sports journalist Mitch and his former sociology professor Morrie, who has ALS - a disease that causes a person to become gradually paralysed - and has only months to live.

What ensues is a candid and moving discussion of topics spanning life, family, love, ageing and death.

Mitch is the archetype of a young man who has made it in life - with a wildly successful career, luxury cars, a house in the suburbs and a girlfriend.

"He was successful, but not happy," says director Daniel Yang, 82. "He was too busy to even get married."

Tuesdays With Morrie, which Yang translated to Mandarin from the stage adaptation of Albom's book, will run at The Esplanade from Friday to Sunday.

The two-character play stars King Shih-chieh as Morrie and Pu Hsueh-liang as Mitch.

"Everyone who watches it will have different feelings," says Yang of Tuesdays With Morrie. "You might think of your relationship with your boyfriend, your husband, your parents, your teacher..."

Despite having been a university professor himself, he says he has more in common with Mitch.

The veteran director taught at the University of Colorado Boulder for more than 20 years and also chaired the Colorado Shakespeare Festival.

"I was as busy as Mitch. I was a very successful person. But sometimes you've got to step down, re-orientate yourself," says Yang, who retired at the height of his career in 1990 before diving into theatre.

The original Tuesdays With Morrie play is based on a script by Albom and Jeffrey Hatcher and opened in New York in 2002.

Yang caught it eight years later at the Utah Shakespeare Festival.

The director, who lives in Las Vegas, drove more than 300km to see it after he read a glowing review in the papers that morning, even though he had to fly to Shanghai to directa Mandarin adaptation of the West End play The 39 Steps the following day.

"Usually, I wouldn't have gone to see a performance under that tight schedule," says Yang. "I call it 'yuan fen' (Chinese for 'a fateful affinity')."

He was so moved by it that he went on to stage a Mandarin version, which premiered in Taipei in 2011. It has also been performed in Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong and has had a run of more than 230 shows so far.

His translation was "quite close to the original... I didn't adapt it to modern Taiwan or anything".

The play features a minimalist set, recalling the "one table and two chairs" concept in traditional Chinese theatre. The aim is also to draw the audience closer to the actors on stage.

"One thing I asked the designers to do is to extend the set out of the proscenium arch. Half of the set is on the orchestra pit," says Yang, who adds that the Esplanade Theatre "might be a little too big" for such an intimate show.

The proscenium arch refers to the frame of the stage.

Asked if the script strikes him as overly sentimental, Yang says he does not think so.

He adds that audiences have responded well to the play. A few years ago, his encounter with an ALS patient in the audience in Shanghai led to a year-long correspondence.

One day, the e-mails stopped coming. "She must have died," he says.

Pu, 53, known for his humorous roles, says the biggest challenge he faced was portraying the complex emotions of a real-life person. King, 67, gave him some tips.

While Pu thinks "everyone can relate to Mitch on some level", King, a former theatre professor, shares Morrie's aversion to society's obsession with materialism.

He adds: "How to say your goodbyes - everyone finds this hard.

"All I can say is we should try to understand death. Rather than run away from it, we can face it with humour and warmth."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 17, 2018, with the headline 'Spend a weekend with Mandarin Morrie'. Print Edition | Subscribe