by Larry Austin
Niagara Regional Theatre Guild could advertise its new production of "Tuesdays With Morrie" with the slogan "Now With More Doug Smith."
Though the 77-year-old Islander played the same role in the same play four years ago, also for NRTG, this time around director John Quackenbush of Grand Island said he has the veteran actor delivering more of his inimitable personality on stage.
Smith plays a professor with Lou Gehrig's Disease, who is visited by a former student, Mitch, played by Joe Fratello. Though Mitch visits his terminally ill professor essentially to say goodbye, he ends up visiting his mentor every Tuesday, and in the process learns about living from one who is dying. The play is based on Mitch Albom's book by the same name.
Quackenbush said the audience will see more of the Doug Smith Islanders know, calling him a leprechaun with a twinkle in his eye.
"Different directors have different ideas," Quackenbush said. "I like to bring in the personality of the people, in addition to the words of the character. And so when we were doing the early rehearsals, Doug had a way of doing it. And I said, 'No, I want more Doug Smith in here than I want you playing a character from the book.' "
Smith performed the two-man show previously at NRTG's former home at Cardinal O'Hara. The move to The Ellicott Creek Playhouse will raise the level of intensity in the production.
"This stage is so much better. When we were performing at Cardinal O'Hara High School, it was like doing up-close magic at Shea's Buffalo," Smith said. "This is just such a more intimate setting, and you're almost literally in the room with them."
Smith performed his first role in high school at age 13 and has done more than 50 shows in 60 years. He said he was hooked on acting at age 13 when in his first show an actress nearly a foot taller than him accidentally knocked him down on stage opening night.
"It brought the house down. That was not in the script," Smith said. "I think at that moment I was hooked."
Doug also credits Polly, his wife of 53 years, with any success he may have.
"While she'd never go on stage, she's just too shy, she works tirelessly at helping me learn lines, setting up costumes, everything. By opening night, she knows a play better than I do. For this one, she even helped me with choreography, although when people see what a bad dancer Morrie is, she may not want to admit it."
The show runs from Nov. 9 through 18. Performances are Friday and Saturday evenings at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. The production will take place at The Ellicott Creek Playhouse, 550 Ellicott Creek Road, Tonawanda. Call 716-284-6358 for information, reservations and tickets, or visit www.niagaratheatre.com.
Pictured: Joe Fratello, at the piano, and Doug Smith rehearse a scene from the Niagara Regional Theatre Guild's production of "Tuesdays with Morrie," which runs Nov. 9 through 18. (photo by Larry Austin)