Actor John Lithgow brought his critically acclaimed show, “Stories by Heart,” to the Granada Theatre in Santa Barbara last Monday night as part of this year’s Arts & Lectures series.
Lithgow’s performance was a one-man show in which he told three stories: two that had been told to him as a child and one about how stories helped his father regain his spirit in the last year-and-a-half of his life.
When Lithgow took his place on the stage — set to look like a sparse living room with one large armchair, a table, a lamp, a stool and a book — at the beginning of the first act, he addressed the audience with several questions, including, “Why do all of us want to hear stories?” and “Why do some of us want to tell them?”
He explained that storytelling is in his blood, just as it was in the blood of his father. Stories helped his dad get through a “melancholy” Great Depression-era childhood. He in turn dedicated his life to stories by founding a Shakespeare-festival in Lithgow’s hometown in Ohio, and by acting and directing for most of his life.
Lithgow attributed the success and unity of his family to stories. The book on stage, Tellers of Tales, was like a bible to his family. Lithgow described the way that he and his siblings would sit around the living room, listening as his father read to them from this book, acting out every character with an “exuberant flamboyance.”
Though he never said it during his act, we can assume that these experiences had some influence in Lithgow’s career choice. But Lithgow’s career was not the focus in “Stories by Heart,” something that upset some fans who had looked forward to hearing more about his life story.
Lithgow’s focus, instead, was the power that these popular stories, especially “Uncle Fred Flits By” by P.G. Wodehouse, “the funny one” in his dad’s repertoire from Tellers of Tales, had on his father as he recovered from a serious surgery several years ago. The younger Lithgow struggled to help his parents recuperate when a novel idea struck him. “I know,” he said, retelling the tale for us, “I’ll read them bedtime stories!”
He proceeded to tell us the story, acting out each of the ten characters. While it took a while to overcome the strange sensation of listening to a story about listening to a story about listening to a story, once I did, the narrative was as engaging as it was hilarious.
At the end of “Uncle Fred Flits By,” Lithgow returned to his armchair to finish the reading, closed the book, and looked out into the audience saying, “Goodnight Mom, goodnight Dad.” It was a sweet finishing touch and helped the audience connect to the material like we had been there at the first telling, when hearing the story had such a positive affect on Lithgow’s father.
Lithgow began the second act by getting the audience to clap while he did a jig on stage and sang an old folk song called, “Eggs and Marrow-Bones.” After he finished and applause subsided, he said, “I like to start Act Two with a peppy song about adultery and murder.”
In the end, it proved to be a segue into the topic he explored with his second story: “the tension between good and bad…funny and horrific…light and dark.” Lithgow’s second story, “Haircut,” by Ring Lardner, is exactly such a tale.
“Haircut,” though fascinating in its own right, did not provide the zany humor of Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred.” Lithgow’s performance of it was also not quite as captivating as that of the first story.
Lithgow delivered the main character’s punchy last line and the lights of the theater went dark, signifying the end of his entire act. While it was a fitting end, and while the performance was definitely enjoyable overall, I felt a little lost; I had been waiting for him to offer some final conclusion, some answer to the questions he had asked us at the beginning of the show, but he did not end by speaking as himself.
In truth, it was too much to expect a conclusive answer so such a big question as, “Why is storytelling important?” John Lithgow still did an excellent job exploring the question within his performance while entertaining his audience. Even if there were no definitive answers given Monday night, “Stories by Heart” succeeded in reminding us of how captivating those bed-time stories were, and how important it is to continue telling stories if only for the feeling it gives us to tell them and to listen.