Passing Strange, The Lion in Winter and Tuesdays with Morrie

The ACT Now! Theatre Company in Walnut Creek has brought back an old chestnut with James Goldman’s “The Lion in Winter”, while the Center Repertory Company in Walnut Creek is presenting Mitch Albom’s “Tuesdays with Morrie”. Through the tunnel and over the hill in Berkeley, Berkeley Repertory Theatre Company is producing one of the most innovative musical storys I’ve ever seen in Stew and Rodewald’s poetical tale of one man’s journey to adulthood in “Passing Strange”.

Tuesday’s with Morrie is great any day of the week!

Starting with the local shows first, Center Repertory Company’s Artistic Director Michael Butler has delivered an incredible piece of theatre by way of his selection of “Tuesdays with Morrie” as the second show of this year’s season. Mitch Albom (Co-Author) is the author of seven books, most notably, Tuesdays with Morrie, which has been at or near the top of The New York Times bestseller list for seven straight years following its 1997 publication. In 2002 Albom and playwright Jeffrey Hatcher joined forces and transformed the wildly successful book into a play. Mitch Albom is a nationally syndicated columnist for the Detroit Free Press and a nationally syndicated radio host for ABC and WJR-AM.

This remarkable story of a young man’s reunion with his former college professor is a heartwarming tale of a reunion that profoundly affects a young man’s life after he thought he had achieved everything a young man could want.

The young man, Mitch (played by Gabriel Marin), made an unusual connection with a professor, Morrie Schwartz (played by Jack Axelrod), in college. They became good friends and they met every Tuesday, shared a meal, explored the meaning of life. At graduation, the young man promised his professor that he would stay in touch, but, typical of many young men, the promise was not fulfilled for 16 years. In fact it probably would never have been fulfilled had Mitch not been watching a news broad cast in which his old Professor was being interviewed as a person with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), sometimes called Lou Gehrig's disease. Mitch decided out of guilt to stop by and see his old professor and before long it was “Tuesdays with Morrie” as it had been many years before.

Mitch is much like the author of this play, a celebrated sports writer and columnist. Typical of an aggressive young man on his way up in his profession, he is burning the candle at both ends, in many ways neglecting his significant other, to stay ahead of the other reporters gnashing at his heels like pursuing dogs.

Morrie recognizes that his young friend is on a perilous path and begins to conduct a private class with his former student, a humanities class. “Are you as human as you can be?” Morrie asks his young friend. “Are you at peace with yourself?” he continues.

Over a period of months, Morrie looses ground as the degenerative disease takes its toll. In ALS, both the upper motor neurons and the lower motor neurons degenerate or die, ceasing to send messages to muscles. Unable to function, the muscles gradually weaken, waste away, and twitch. Eventually the ability of the brain to start and control voluntary movement is lost. Individuals with ALS lose their strength and the ability to move their arms, legs, and body. Morrie has accepted the fact that he is dying, and as he puts it, “I’m dying, and I can live with that!”

The old man wants his young friend to become a more loving, giving human being and he seems to dedicate the remainder of his remaining months and diminishing strength to that end. “Make people your priority!” he entreats Mitch.

This is a wonderful, inspired evening of theater and these two actors deliver what I can only describe as brilliant portrayals that will be remembered for a very long time. Director Robin Stanton skillfully directs these fine actors and gives you a pinnacle performance.

Tuesdays with Morrie continues Wednesdays at 7:30, with performances on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sunday performances at 2:30 p.m., now through November 18th in the Margaret Lesher Theatre in the Dean Lesher Center for the Performing Arts in Walnut Creek, situated at 1601 Civic Drive. There is convenient public parking in the garage next to the theater. Tickets range between $14 and $38 apiece and you may call the box office at (925) 943-7469 to reserve tickets or ask for additional information. You may also purchase tickets at Barnes and Noble in Walnut Creek or visit their web site at

What family doesn't have its ups and downs?-- Eleanor of Aquitaine,

Down stairs in this Regional Center for the Arts, is a horse, or should I say, a Lion of a different color. In the Stage III Theatre in the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts, as the ACT Now! Theater is presenting Goldmans’s The Lion in Winter, a very interesting and highly charged, albeit somewhat disappointing, production of James Goldman’s pithy and verbally powerful play about familial forces forging a plan to topple a king and redirect a kingdom.

If we carefully peruse our history books, we find that there were at least ten children born to King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, but the Lion in Winter only addresses three of their sons, Richard , John, and Geoffrey. In real life we are more familiar with Richard “Coeur de Lion (the Lion Hearted)”, and John, who will go on to grant the Magna Carta. Geoffrey fades away into obscurity.

In 1183, at Christmas, King Henry calls the family together at the castle at Chinon, where his wife, Queen Eleanor has been held prisoner (for her numerous attempts to dethrone the king) for the past ten year, to discuss his future plans for the kingdom and its governance.

This is a three pronged attack on his scheming Queen. First, he wants a annulment, then, he wants his wife’s favorite soldier son, Richard, passed over in favor as future king, in favor of his spoiled but certainly not war-mongering pet son, John. In addition, he wants to solidify his power over Phillip, the King of France, who is also the brother to Alais ,the young woman whom he pledged many years earlier to have one of his sons marry, but who is in fact, his mistress. He wants to marry Alais himself. How typical of English kings, they all seem to want to capitulate nothing and to fornicate everything and everyone.

“I’ve snapped and plotted all my life. There is no other way to be alive, king, and fifty all at once,” he says. Now Henry wants nothing more than to make love, not war, but at the same time, that does not mean he is willing to give up power to another.

Goldman's language is his own, and its one key to its success is its ability to ground these royals in a contemporary sensibility without losing their stateliness. It is a superb play and in this production the actors wrangle and fuss and feud with as much passion as in any other production I’ve seen, but unfortunately, they don’t do it as regally. In my perception, only Eleanor delivers a quality of stateliness, an inner sense of her royal bearing and powerful connivance. Richard Aiello plays King Henry with understated cleverness and wit and a droll sense of humor, but the royalty of his character never quite matures, never quite reaches my expectation for this great and powerful king, the first great Plantagenet.

Jeff Bryant plays Geoffrey and Joseph Hirsch plays John (their names are reversed in the program) and Gwyneth Richards plays Eleanor. Eddy Peabody plays young Richard the Lion Hearted and he does so very well. He is the most believable of the three sons. Hanna Knapp plays Alais and is quite excellent at the young sister to King Phillip of France. Bret Hodson does well as King Philip. The actors give a good performance and the audience came away to all appearances having enjoyed the performance.

In the final analysis, the words are powerful and intensely personal; the familial forces and duplicitous interplay are riveting,. The play is worthy of your attention and perhaps the real and regal will emerge as the play proceeds.

The Lion in Winter continues Fridays and Saturdays at 8:15 p.m., with Sunday performances at 2:15 p.m. now through Saturday, November 18th in the Stage III theatre on the ground floor level of the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts at 1601 Center Drive, in Walnut Creek. Call the Box Office at (925) 943-7469 (SHOW) for tickets for reservations. You can go on line and visit their web-site at to see more information about this show and future productions.

“ - - Ended dreams and endless picket fences, the truth of youth and grown up consequences - - And now how there is no ballad that can break your fall, No melody for life’s malady at all - -“ so says “Stew” to you and you and you - -

Berkeley Repertory Theatre is at it again, bringing the truly unique and wonderful in theatrical productions to reality! Their current production of Stew and Heidi Rodewald’s poetical, political, hip journey through sex, drugs, rock and roll, entitled Passing Strange is an experience that should not be missed. In fact, I intend to see it again before the run is over.

I remember the beat poets in the coffee houses of the 60’s and 70’s pouring out their words of prophetic wisdom to the beat of bongo drums and acoustic guitars. While some were expressing pure existential expresso garbage, others had some pretty profound things to say. In a way, this show reminds me of that experience, only in a much more grand and eloquent theatrical experience.

Stew (who uses his first professional name only) and Heidi Rodewald are founding members of a pop rock group called The Negro Problem, that have garnered nationwide acclaim. Stew acts as the story’s narrator and as this tale about a young black man unfolds, Stew underlines the concepts and delivers a sonorous sweet sounding sermon, telling this boy’s story.

The story is about a youth who resists going to church partially because of its external values and grows up resisting his single mother’s teachings, strikes out on his own and ends up in Holland and Germany experiencing all manner of personal gratification. But more than the story, which is merely an allegory about the values in life, the words are like precious jewels just waiting to be picked up and taken away as personal treasures.

Wish we could talk about…
The meaning of means and the ending of ends
The lifespan of epiphanies and friends
Ended dreams and endless picket fences
The truth of youth and grown up consequences
And how there is no ballad
that can break your fall
No melody for life’s malady at all
You been looking for a home
On your way to the real
Song is a balm. But Song does not heal

And later :
It’s not love if somebody has to change, It’s not love unless somebody changes!

And again:
- - So much for learning the “geography” of your hell.

The tempo rises and swells and a great combo accompanies the actors in the choreography of the story. De’adre Aziza, Eisa Davis, Chad Goodridge, Daniel Breaker, Colman Domingoand Rebecca Naomi Jones are the actors who play the many different characters. The acting is superb, the musicians Bass and vocal, Heidi Rodewald; Guitar and Keyboard, Jon Spurney; Keyboard, Marc Doten; and Percussion, Russ Kleiner, cannot be separated, it is truly an ensemble performance. This is a show that is a cornucopia of experiences, difficult to give adequate description. Wow, what a performance!

This outstanding experience continues Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., with performances on Wednesdays and Sundays at 7 p.m., and with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m., now through December 3rd in the Berkely Repertory Theater Thrust Stage at 2025 Addison Street in Berkeley. Call (510) 647.2949 or toll free at 888-4-BRT.Tix or simply click on for more information. Tickets range in price between $31 to $61 each.