By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
In his autobiographical solo performance Stories by Heart, John Lithgow clutches a book of stories, just about the only prop he uses. It's a musty, thick old book that, if we're to believe him, has been in his family for generations. It's the book, he says, that his parents read from in order to entertain him and his three siblings. He recalls the family favorite — the "funny one" — P.G. Wodehouse's story "Uncle Fred Flits By," about an eccentric man who torments his quaking nephew, Pongo Twistleton, by creating havoc in a snooty English suburban home. The pair barge in under false pretenses and, with their invented identities, blackmail sundry guests with intricately, spontaneously woven yarns — thereby enabling the previously frustrated wedding plans of smitten young lovers.
It's the madcap tone the kids loved, the loopy shape-shifting realities, the pompous brought down to earth by the leveling, satirical power of an Uncle Fred who, with little better to do, made stuff up. In so doing, he exposed the foibles of his society.
In stories lie larger truths. That's the upside of fiction. Fiction also has its downside, in politics, but Lithgow's focus is on the upside, and the memories, the wistful glances back in time.
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His father, Arthur Lithgow, was a sullen child (though how his son would know this for certain raises some questions of veracity — perhaps from some relative's description?) who grew into a spirited, extroverted actor and artistic director of a repertory Shakespeare company in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Arthur Lithgow, says his son, told stories with extravagant flair and lived perpetually on the brink of "ruination." Shakespeare, Wodehouse, Ring Lardner and their fictions lay at the fulcrum of the family's survival.
Years later, when Arthur Lithgow was in his 80s, he had to endure abdominal surgery that broke the spirit of this very spirited man. John was the only actor among his siblings, and therefore the only child who was unemployed and "available" to care for his aging parents — a task that sent him nightly into paroxysms of sobbing, he says. Until he discovered on the shelf of their home a musty old book of stories containing "Uncle Fred Flits By."
He cracked it open, started reading it to his bedridden father and, for the first time since the surgery, heard him chortle with amusement. What transpired after is, perhaps, the best retort to the fatigued argument that the arts are an indulgence. The lifesaving capacities of the arts can be found in after-school programs of neighborhoods in despair, in hospices and prisons. The arts have, in their way, parallel capacities to an emergency ward in a hospital.
And that's one answer to the questions Lithgow posits at the start of his show: Why do people tell stories? And why do people listen to them?
These are ancient questions that usually re-emerge in high school and university literature classes, but Lithgow brings into sharp relief the visceral purpose of crafting lies for a higher cause.
As a persona, Lithgow is beyond amiable. He has a physical dexterity and a far-flung vocal range that can impersonate anything from the piping of Englishwomen to a Midwestern barber's gravelly drawl.
The centerpiece, however — tenderly accentuated in Eric Cornwell's subtle lighting — is that hardbound book. When Lithgow holds it in a stuffed chair next to an art deco lamp, warning bells go off that we're in for a recitation worthy of Alistair Cooke. Early into the Wodehouse yarn, however — which he is about to enact in its entirety — Lithgow gently closes the book and a dawning light spreads over the stage. What happens next is an act of conjuring. It's more than a very good actor impersonating up to a dozen characters with split-second transitions. It's the idiosyncratic, lucid vision of an author from the 1930s swirling around the stage. The power of stories and the power of theater are quite distinct. One is personal, the other collective. The closing of the book marks the transition from the former to the latter.
Curiously, Lithgow's Act 2, a recitation of Lardner's "The Haircut," translates to the stage with more of a thud, perhaps because the vehicle — the monologue of a deranged barber in a deranged Midwestern town — doesn't allow the actor the opportunity to vault from one character to the next. Here, Lithgow aims to home in on a gossipy barber's explanation for the death of his friend. Onstage, the point of lightness and depravity coexisting gets made in full within 15 minutes, yet the story lasts far longer.
Here, Lithgow invests heavily in the physical detail of the barber's rituals of a shave and a haircut, for a customer (whom we don't see) described as an outsider, which puts us in that barber chair.
Though it sounds like an antitheatrical impulse, it might have been of stronger service to the story had a second actor (such as lighting designer Cornwell, who makes a brief appearance at the top of the act) been positioned in the barber chair. The point that Lithgow says he wants to make — the duality of the lightness and the darkness of a place, of kindness and cruelty — may lie in the reactions of the captive audience. In the story we have to imagine those reactions, but then again, we also have to imagine the delivery of the barber. On the stage, the delivery is manifested, somewhat redundantly, in three powerful dimensions by Lithgow, yet we're asked to imagine the reactions of an invisible listener, and the balance is off-kilter.