Nestled in a squishy armchair in a wood-paneled study, actor John Lithgow opens his mouth and with his personal reflections brings his childhood and late father to life. At first brush, it seems like Lithgow is just going to look back on his youth by recounting his own life’s story, but this becomes a leaping off point for a different focus. He dives into some of his favorite bedtime stories instead and shows—rather than tells—why he revels in stories and became an actor.
Lithgow begins his one-man show by going back to the 1950s. He moved around a lot in his childhood because his father was a regional theatre actor, director, and producer. When his father wasn’t preparing for his summer circuit of Shakespeare plays, he was reading his children bedtime stories from a leather-bound book. Lithgow shows the audience that original book. His father had painstakingly rebound it with red tape after it fell apart and kept a list of his children’s favorites in the inside cover. Despite all of this careful effort, the book was rebound upside down. His father’s quirks still live on in this artifact more than a decade after his death.
Lithgow and director Daniel Sullivan stage the show around two of the Lithgow family’s favorite stories: in the first act Ring Lardner’s “The Haircut” and in the second, PG Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By.” The names of the authors might ring some distant bell in the audience’s memory, but very few are familiar with the stories themselves.
While he recites both stories word-for-word, Lithgow comes alive, just as his father had onstage. In “The Haircut,” Lithgow has a lot less to work with. He portrays one character who’s narrating the story while giving someone a haircut. The nuances of the story are within the dialogue, not necessarily with Lithgow’s broad performance. The words do the heavy-lifting while Lithgow keeps the audience engaged with his character’s odd laugh and his precise pantomime of shaving and hair-cutting. It’s as if there’s a man in that chair, and Lithgow knows exactly where the back of his head is.
The style of PG Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By” is vastly different and infinitely more entertaining. There are at least eight characters in this story, and Lithgow plays them all. This comedy of manners is where Lithgow really gets to show his chops. Much like Uncle Fred, he flits from character to character within seconds, but the different mannerisms and voices he concocts ensures that the audience always knows which character he’s playing.
It’s no surprise that Lithgow can do all of this as he’s a versatile actor with multiple Oscar nominations and the winner of several Tonys, Emmys, and SAG Awards. He’s portrayed the grumbly Winston Churchill in The Crown and brought the zany Dr. Dick Solomon in 3rd Rock from the Sun to life. All the same, it’s delightful to see an actor gleefully jump seamlessly into characters, harkening back to vaudeville.
The set, designed by John Lee Beatty, is beautiful and cozy yet devoid of fancy knick-knacks that usually come with rooms that look like they were pulled out of the ‘50s. Lithgow’s only prop is that book. Beatty clearly understands that Lithgow doesn’t need anything more.
The actor has been putting Stories By Heart together since 2008 (where he previously worked with director Jack O’Brien on it). Lithgow has toured it around and workshopped it, and that clearly shows by how comfortable and confident Lithgow seems with what he’s showing to the audience. Sullivan paces Lithgow’s work through two acts nicely, though the first act does drag a bit. “The Haircut” isn’t as compelling or fun as “Uncle Fred Flits By.” Even though this tale might have been a Lithgow family favorite, it does drag on, but that’s not a fault of Lithgow’s performance itself. The story just isn’t one that isn’t conducive to the stage, and it’s aged poorly. It has some uncomfortable stereotypes, and the narrator (who Lithgow is playing) isn’t particularly sympathetic. The second act is also more heartfelt because Lithgow ties the telling of this story back to his family and the changing dynamic between aging parents and their children. There’s a specific emotional reason as to why Lithgow has plunged into an energetic reading of “Uncle Fred” which he shares with us.
Stories By Heart is steeped in nostalgia for childhood bedtime stories and the enthusiasm that the act of sharing a story was usually met with. Any audience member who has or had a storyteller or avid reader in their family can attest to this. When Lithgow turned the red book over in his hands, I was instantly reminded of my grandmother’s two leather-bound Sherlock Holmes books that she let me borrow at age 11. I could almost smell that musty old book smell from the orchestra and feel what it would be like to turn through those yellowed pages. Although many personal narrative shows can become too self-serving, Lithgow and Sullivan make it clear that Stories By Heart isn’t an attempt to create catharsis. Lithgow isn’t just trying to get his story off his chest. He’s bringing back bedtime stories and reminding his audiences that stories can make us feel better. The latter seems more important than ever in 2018.