NEW YORK - The new solo show by John Lithgow is a mix of memorization and memoir: a way to remember his childhood by recalling stories he heard as a boy. And, because it's a great star who's doing the telling, the show is also very entertaining.
He plays more than a dozen parts in the course of telling "Stories by Heart," but one very real character is never far from his mind: "My father," his son explains, "is forgotten. He was never a celebrity as it was, but he was a man of incredible achievement, and creativity and talent in the theater." Arthur Lithgow worked far from Broadway in regional theater throughout the U.S. meaning John's "childhood while it was going on was a big mess, and very upsetting you know, because I was constantly changing schools, meeting new friends, saying goodbye to friends."
One constant was a volume of stories John Lithgow holds in his hand at every performance. "It's called 'Tellers of Tales,'" the star tells the audience, and his dad read from the book to his kids. Before one show he told me, "This is my only prop, and in fact, it's my co-star. It's a book, and the book contains a hundred stories, but I perform two of them."
The star discovered the book in his parents home when he went there a few years ago to give them comfort after his father had a very serious operation. "He was so depressed, and we sort of knew that if he doesn't cheer up, we've lost him," the star told me, and that's when he hit on the idea of reading from the very book hi father had read to him. "And, by God, it's brought him back to life!" Arthur Lithgow started to laugh, a sound his son describes as, "Like the engine of an old car starting up after years of dis-use. It was the first time he'd laughed in months. He went on and lived another year and a half."
Through this John grew close to his father and mother and learned more about his wild childhood saying, he "Spent this unique month with my mom and dad when they were very old and pretty much taking care of them, and I learned so much about their young years-including the fact that there were moments when they literally had to leave town before they were arrested for tax evasion! He was running theater companies and just desperately trying to keep everybody paid and keep the show on. It was crazy, and yet they spared us all that. I thought it was this sort of wonderful, playful thing they did for a living."
Today, the legacy of Arthur Lithgow comes alive at every performance by his loving son. "It gives much pleasure to speak his name from a Broadway stage," the star tells audiences, adding later, through the pages of a single, treasured, family heirloom his late father "comes back."
His father and mother have both passed away now, but they lived to see his success. John Lithgow has won two Tony Awards for his work on Broadway and might get another one for "Stories by Heart."