BY ELYSE TREVERS
An actor is a storyteller, using gestures and facial expressions to convey the ideas of the writer. In his one-man show, “John Lithgow: Stories by Heart,” Lithgow delights the audience with his considerable charms and talents as he “reads” two of the stories that his father, actor-director Arthur Lithgow, shared with John and his siblings when they were young.
First, Lithgow gives background about his childhood, explaining that his father produced Shakespearian plays in Ohio, often moving his family around. At night, the older Lithgow would read stories to his children from a book entitled “Tellers of Tales,” a collection of classic stories. After the setup and background, John Lithgow reads Ring Lardner’s story “Haircut.” What makes the story so enjoyable are Lithgow’s sound effects, all done with his voice. Close your eyes and you hear the scissors snipping hair and the razor stropping on the leather strap.
The second act works pretty much the same way, but now he tells of his 80-something father having had surgery and becoming despondent. When Lithgow stays with his parents to help them, he is in the unenviable position of having to care for both his elderly parents. So he picks up the same short story book his dad read to him and tells his mother and father stories.
He explains that during his reading of “Uncle Fred Flits By” by PG Wodehouse, his parents begin to laugh and his father starts to rally. So then Lithgow “tells” the audience the story. The main character is a quirky fellow who occasionally visits his nephew and gets the two of them into all sorts of predicaments.
The story is lengthy and the British names complex. Using his voice and body, Lithgow is able to mine the story for humor, but for some, the story will seem to go on too long. Short stories are meant to be read, usually silently, yet the two stories Lithgow performs gain much from being spoken aloud.
The two-hour performance is an homage to his father and the power of language and stories. Lithgow is a theatrical treasure but this show would have been more enjoyable with shorter, somewhat simpler pieces. “Read me a story” demands the small child, but entertain me by using expression and funny voices. Keep my attention by not going on too long or using too much description.
Lithgow got most of it right; his father would have been pleased.