BY ERIC MULHOLLAND
January 6, 2016
This month, on Sunday, Jan. 17, I will take to the WICA stage for a dramatic reading of the play “Tuesdays With Morrie” by Mitch Albom, based on his best-selling book of the same name.
In the play, the central character, Mitch, reconnects with his old college professor from Brandeis University, Morrie Schwartz, when he learns that Morrie has been diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Mitch finds himself visiting his professor every Tuesday throughout his illness and is the only student in what becomes Morrie’s final class; the subject is: The Meaning of Life.
Coming together to embark on a creative journey with fellow theatre artists is always exciting. There is that ‘first day of school’ feeling when you sit down at the first table read and dive into the story of a play, getting lost in the lives of the characters, examining what makes them unique and interesting and then figuring out how to express their truth to an audience. And then there’s the excitement of all the production elements coming together, such as lights, costumes and sets—imagining how it will all appear to the audience on the day of the performance. That’s the magic of theatre making and it always excites me.
However, for me this project is different. It’s a true labor of love, one that has more heart and meaning for me than any other theatre production I’ve been involved with before. This time it’s deeply personal because the subject of this story hits close to home.
Let me start by saying that 2015 was a hell of a year for me. It’s the year that my happy life was turned upside down and inside out, never to be the same again. On April 28, 2015, my husband of 13 years, Charlie Murphy, was diagnosed ALS.
ALS is a fatal disease with no known cure or treatments. There are approximately 20,000 people living with ALS in the United States at any given time and the prognosis is bleak.
We are making every effort to slow down the disease progression by trying as many cutting-edge treatments we can find. We’ve done a lot to combat the onset of symptoms, including spending over two months in China, where we lived at a hospital trying to slow down the disease progression with intensive courses of herbs, acupuncture and massage. We are currently halfway through a medical trial and researching new treatments in stem cell therapy and hyperbaric oxygen, all of which require resources that we never thought we’d need.
Actively pursuing treatment is what we can do to help us keep hope alive. We’re optimistic that we will stumble onto a treatment that will buy us more time and slow down the disease progression. Yet it’s challenging to hold hope when you see the many physical changes occur.
Now, as I spend my days helping Charlie lift his arms to wash and dress, I wonder how this journey will play out. Will we find hope in the face of this hopeless disease? Like Mitch in “Tuesdays With Morrie,” I find myself learning about the meaning of life from Charlie, who is becoming my teacher. To me, he is the embodiment of love. His gentle spirit and dignity in the face of this fight inspires me to be a better person every day.
And so here I am, preparing for a role that cuts to the heart in deeply personal ways. As an actor, it’s essential to remain objective in the preparation of a role as you lead up to the performance. You work on all aspects of the character—understanding his/her role in the arc of the story, the relationships between people and so on. And it’s easy to be objective when you have no first-hand experience of the story’s subject matter because you get to be a student, learning about the material you are attempting to express. And when the day of the performance arrives, you let go of that objectivity and trust that what you express is the character’s thoughts and feelings.
This process of developing the character is usually a real thrill for me. I enjoy being like a detective, following the playwright’s clues to discover the many intriguing aspects of a character’s life. This time, however, I find it’s very difficult to remain objective in the weeks leading up to the production because I am living with ALS. I read the play and so much of what Morrie faces is what Charlie and I are facing in real time and it hurts. No matter how much love we have for each other or how hopeful we remain, the pain of the situation is always present.
So how does an actor make space for objectivity when the reality of a difficult situation is staring him in the face on a daily basis? I don’t really know the answer to that question. I only know that I am going to do my very best to approach this project with the same passion and enthusiasm I have for every other role I have portrayed and trust that the love I have for Charlie, and for my craft, will guide me to express Mitch’s thoughts and feelings in a meaningful way to each of you, the audience.
This production is a staged reading to benefit Charlie’s healing fund and it is so much more than a creative project and fundraiser to me. It’s an opportunity to share with our community the great challenges we will all face in life and to explore the role each of us will play in the lives of each other and how we can ease the difficult road ahead for us all.
When this project was first arranged, Charlie asked me, “will you be one of the actors in it”? It hadn’t occurred to me to be onstage! I was happy to be an audience member, sitting in the darkness, making this journey with everyone else.
I started to look at this as a gift I can give Charlie. But it turns out it’s as much a gift to myself as it is for him. I have the great pleasure of continuing to grow in my art while doing something tangible to help ease the path for my beloved husband. I am happily sharing the stage with fellow actor Andrew Grenier in this production, which is directed by Deana Duncan.
Charlie and I are learning the extraordinary power of love and hope that expresses itself so beautifully in the people who surround us. There have been other community gatherings to benefit Charlie’s fund, like the film “Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton” at the Clyde Theater and a community concert with the Open Circle Singers. And now—this staged reading at WICA that was so generously proposed to us by Stacie Burgua and Deana Duncan as a way of supporting Charlie.
Though we are in the trenches, fighting for time and a miracle, we are ever grateful for this community and the many ways the people in it show up to offer us support. ALS hasn’t extinguished hope in us and I have a strong sense that the gift of it is that it’s teaching us all the meaning of life.
- Whidbey Island Center for the Arts presents a staged reading of “Tuesdays With Morrie” by Mitch Albom at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 17. A benefit for the Charlie Murphy Healing Fund. Directed by Deana Duncan. For tickets: https://tickets.wicaonline.com/public/
- If you cannot attend the production, you can still support the Healing Fund. Please visit: youcaring.com/charlie-murphy-361893.
Eric Mulholland is an actor, teacher and writer living on Whidbey Island.
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