It’s possible in these attention-deficit times that some Broadway-goers may dismiss John Lithgow: Stories by Heart as being simply too much of a good thing. But when an exceptional actor such as Lithgow performs a two-hour solo show that he has drawn from a couple of entertaining yarns as well as some warmly personal recollections, then I am all for it. First produced in a shorter iteration at Lincoln Center Theater in 2008, Stories by Heart is an often beguiling mix of honest sentiment and vintage wordplay illuminated by Lithgow’s terrific skills.
There is little flashy about this event that the actor has devised himself: The very tall, trim Lithgow strolls onstage in a neatly tailored blue-gray suit and, following a few pleasant preliminaries, settles downs into a wingback armchair and begins to talk fondly about growing up with his family. Lithgow’s dad, Arthur, was a producer-director-actor who established a couple of Shakespeare festivals during the nomadic course of a not especially lucrative career in regional theater during the Fifties and Sixties.
Money usually was tight in their household, but Lithgow recalls that he and his three siblings enjoyed a happy home life “awash with Elizabethan verse and Broadway show tunes,” thanks in part to Arthur’s tradition of reading them nighttime stories. “You could say that my life as an actor began on those drowsy evenings at bedtime,” remarks Lithgow. “That was when I first experienced the simple power of great writing and spoken words, to grab hold of people and carry them away.”
This is precisely what Lithgow proceeds to do with the audience as he soon removes his jacket, untucks his shirt, rolls up his sleeves, and assumes the creaky voice and cracker-barrel manners of Whitey, a barber in a small Midwestern town, who is the narrator of Haircut, one of the many stories Lithgow heard from his dad. Written by Ring Lardner in 1925, Haircut is an increasingly dark story regarding a practical joker with a vicious mean streak who finally gets his comeuppance from a village simpleton he has harassed. Fluently speaking Lardner’s provincial dialect, Lithgow relates this twisting tale even as he expertly pantomimes all the physical details of Whitey giving his customer a shave and a haircut. If the actor’s sporadic vocal effects imitating the barber’s scissors turns annoying, designer Kenneth Posner’s lighting subtly creates looming shadows that punctuate the story’s bitter conclusion.
Following intermission, Lithgow returns to the stage — designed perhaps a tad too formally by John Lee Beatty as a wood-paneled chamber with a coffered ceiling — to contrast a piece of lighter fiction with the sorrowful facts about his father’s final years. As Arthur’s health declined, so did his spirits; fortunately, his visiting son rediscovered the family’s anthology of stories and began reading them aloud to Arthur, whose condition sharply improved upon hearing again the comical Uncle Fred Flits By. This giddy 1935 tale by P.G. Wodehouse — whose immortal character, the unflappable butler Jeeves, does not appear in it — transpires in London and its suburbs, affording Lithgow the opportunity to employ an array of British accents as he evokes nearly a dozen characters. The story’s particulars are too absurd to outline here, except to note that these doings involving a wacky uncle are drolly brought to life through Lithgow’s expansive, bravura performance. The clarity and precision of Lithgow’s acting suggests that Daniel Sullivan, the director, has been vigilant in focusing the actor’s capabilities.
While some spectators may feel that Stories by Heart is overlong as a solo show and too modest in scale to be a proper Broadway attraction for Roundabout Theatre Company, there is no denying how well Lithgow commands its 740-seat auditorium. It is a pleasure to witness Lithgow demonstrate his proficiency as an actor while honoring both his father and the power of the spoken word.