Tom Mercer, one of Simcoe‘s best known and most popular stage actors is moving out of his comfort zone. He’s putting away the tap shoes; he’s putting away his song sheet. Tom will co-star in August in Theatre Aurora’s summer production of ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’. This stage adaptation of Mitch Albom’s well-loved and best-selling 1997 memoir of a former student and his dying professor represents a big step for Tom, as he explains to The Green Room editor John Bleasby.
The book Tuesday with Morrie is a well-known bestseller. Does the play differ from the book much?
It’s shorter. And there are only two characters in the play. I play ‘Mitch’ and Robert Ball plays ‘Morrie’, who has done a number of productions around Aurora and Newmarket.
Have you ever appeared in a production down that way?
What drew you to the play and this production?
A couple of things: I’ve been looking in that area for the last couple of years for an opportunity to expand my circle, mainly because I work in Markham and live in Innisfil. So, if for nothing else, there would be a convenience factor in that I could go to rehearsals on my way home from work. Also, I always like to keep my eyes open and see what else is out there, what everyone is doing. I saw Theatre Aurora was putting on ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’; I knew it was a two-hander. I’ve attended shows at Theatre Aurora before and knew they had a quite a large core of talent, so I didn’t even think about going out to audition. And I was also thinking “If you’re going to break into a new group, a two-hander may not offer the best chance.” But after the audition date passed, end of May, early June, I saw a post that they were still looking for a ‘Mitch’ and a ‘Morrie’. So then I thought “What the hell!” I emailed them, they sent me a copy of the script, and I read it. But I thought maybe I was too old to play ‘Mitch’ and too young to play ‘Morrie’. However, I decided that they could decide that or not. I auditioned, I got a call-back and when I was on vacation I received an email offering me the role of ‘Mitch’.
That must been exciting.
It was. I was excited, and nervous as hell! It wasn’t just getting into a new group with a major part, I was nervous because aside from a small part in a KCP production a few years back of ‘You Can’t Take It With You’, I’ve only ever done musicals. I’ve always considered myself a singer, not an actor. For the longest time I always felt when I was doing a show “Alright, I might lose them during a scene, but I’ve got a song coming up, so I’ll get them back.”
I was on stage with you in that KCP show plus another at South Simcoe Theatre, and saw you recently in SST’s ‘Jasper Station’. I think many like me would be surprised to hear you say that.
Well, that’s what prompted me to try this, because of the feedback I got and the opportunity ‘Jasper Station’ gave me to expand my acting; I had to do five different characters. It was a chance to do a ‘straight’ play. And now I’m having a phenomenal time.
So jumping into a non-musical two-hander with a new group wasn’t as daunting as your own self-doubt?
Well, once I got into it, it became a little more daunting! There’s the fact that I don’t really get a break; I’m on stage pretty much all the time; and there’s a lot of lines (laughs).
The play demands some great chemistry and partnership between you and your co-star Robert Ball.
We’re getting along great. We’re playing well off each other. It’s a fantastic partnership.
Tuesdays with ‘Morrie’ is very much about inter-generational mentoring and dealing with death. Tell me about how you and your character ‘Mitch’ deal with as the play evolves.
The way I look at it is this; there’s an older man, a professor, and a younger man, his student, who were close but drifted apart mainly because of the younger man. Then towards the end of the older man’s life, they get back together and slowly re-establish their relationship. I don’t know if it’s been a conscious thought but there is in fact a little bit of this in my own life, with my father. When you get to a certain age, you think to yourself “It’s my dad. What does he know?”
It’s like the old joke how teenagers think their parents are stupid; then sometime later, maybe in their 20’s, they suddenly turn around and say “I can’t believe how much my parents have learned in the past five years!”
Exactly! But I don’t think Mitch ever felt ‘Morrie’ was stupid. Mitch had some traumatic experiences with his uncle passing away and it pushed him in another direction. He got caught up with ‘the need to succeed’ and forgot many of the lessons he learned from ‘Morrie’s’ classes. Mitch goes back to ‘Morrie’ out of a feeling of guilt or duty. ‘Morrie’ gets inside ‘Mitch’s’ head, and starts to get him back to the kind of man he was before, more of ‘real’ person instead of a driven, closed, and singular individual.
So we see a noticeable development of ‘Mitch’s’ personality throughout the play?
‘Morrie’s’ got all these great lines. When I first read the script, I thought “Boy, I’ve got to play ‘Morrie’ one day!” He’s got this one fantastic line “Everybody knows they’re going to die but nobody believes it.” ‘Morrie’ has been diagnosed with ALS, and all of a sudden he has to believe it and deal with it. ‘Mitch’ comes back into ‘Morrie’s’ life as a young vibrant go-getter and is very much in the ‘nobody believes it’ phase. He doesn’t take it all that seriously when he first comes back to see ‘Morrie’, but then sees that these are realities of life.
How does the play avoid the instinct to get ‘preachy’ about the subject life and mortality?
Every once in a while, ‘Morrie’ confronts ‘Mitch’ to make sure that ‘Mitch’ is back on the right path. ‘Morrie’ is using his remaining time to set ‘Mitch’ up on a path to succeed as a person. ‘Mitch’ has succeeded in his career as a reporter and he’s got all the obvious things that demonstrates that success, but he’s lost his human side. ‘Morrie’ is trying to set up ‘Mitch’ as a person once he’s gone. So every now and again, he’ll throw something out at ‘Mitch’, just to wake him up, but most of the time it’s little things, demonstrating things; gentle manipulation of ‘Mitch’s’ character you might say, to let ‘Mitch’ see without necessarily being told.
Are you and Robert Ball able to find time to work on these important intricacies of your on-stage relationship?
We talk about our characters and how we see how a scene just went or how we see the upcoming scene working, but we also talk about ourselves in our real lives so we can get each other better that way. Our director Dale Sheldrake is a very collaborative person to work with; he’ll listen to anything we might have to suggest, and has included a number of our ideas. He’s supportive of our choices. At the same time, he’s also very quick to shoot us down if he’s got a very distinct vision in his head!
Tuesdays with Morrie’ opens August 14th and runs to the 24th at Theatre Aurora
For information and tickets visit the Theatre Aurora website