Stories by Heart, LA

Written by:
John Sullivan
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John Lithgow in the Taper production of “Stories by Heart”
Photo by Craig Schwartz

Stories by Heart

Conceived, written and performed by John Lithgow
Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles
Through Feb. 13, 2011
(See video clip below.)

John Lithgow is a charmer; it cannot simply be the acting. You tell yourself it must come from within. You cannot leave the Taper without a rosy glow, having been bathed not only in his seemingly genuine warmth, but that of his family, too. It will be impossible for anyone who grew up on bedtime stories, or made them a special part of raising children, not to feel nostalgic remembering those good times.

“Stories By Heart” is an ode to Lithgow’s family, its tradition of storytelling that mesmerized him as a child, and to his continuing love of the art. The family possessed a book of 100 great stories they regarded as though it was their bible. When his 86-year-old father was in extremis after very serious surgery, Lithgow, an actor who was not working at the moment, became the designated sibling to move back in with his parents for a month and help. His father, who had been a dynamic storyteller and a very productive theatre actor and director, seemed to have his motivation to live sapped by the surgery. It was not until Lithgow seized upon the idea of reading him a story, the family favorite, P.G. Wodehouse‘s “Uncle Fred Flits By,” that the color returned to the older Lithgow’s cheeks; he was able to begin to heal. When the children were young this story had been the family’s favorite and was known affectionately by all as “the funny one.”

The first half of Act I is rich with colorful description of Lithgow family life. With a glance at the family tome that held Wodehouse’s story, Lithgow acts and recites “Uncle Fred,” changing rapidly from one character to another as a skilled older relative might. It is a short story by print standards. It does not seem so short by theatrical measure. So, as charming as the recital is, as successfully as Lithgow changes from one character to another, as nostalgic as one might be for storytelling of times past, Act I feels drawn out, leaving some audience members hungry for more of Lithgow’s own storytelling.

When “Stories by Heart” opened in Lincoln Center it was an hour and 40 minutes long. “Stories” is now over two hours. In New York, it played in the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, which at roughly 40 percent the size of the Mark Taper, is a much more intimate venue. The larger house overwhelms the premise created by the spare but cozy set: scattered oriental rugs, old-fashioned little tables, a lamp, and a dowdy wing chair. The larger house and the longer duration undermine the sense of being part of the Lithgow family circle.

Act II opens with his lively presentation of a bawdy Irish ditty about an old woman who loved her husband, but loved another more. This lead to her search for a potion, “eggs and marrow bones,” to blind the husband. The whole scheme backfires and she herself ends up drowned by him in the river. Lithgow, light of step and with flashing eyes delivers it with zest. Short and sweet, it alone could have stood for the family tale-telling tradition, but the act proceeded to be dominated by a long Ring Lardner story, “The Haircut, ” about a barber filling in a newcomer on the characters of the town all in the course of a shave and a cut. Lithgow gives a delicious rendering of the story as he pantomimes the barber at work; however, once again I hungered for more of his original work.

The evening opens with Lithgow asking, “Why do people love stories and why do some people love telling them?” Does the question get answered? Well, yes and no. He certainly reminds us of the spellbinding effect of a story well told; unfortunately some of the effects include the soporific aspects of bedtime stories.

An evening with John Lithgow is hard not to like. He may be the Hollywood personality I would most like to meet at a dinner party. However, an evening with him and a more original vehicle would be even better than this one-man piece with long stretches that are meant to be read curled up on the couch, not surrounded by more than 700 other patrons. “Stories by Heart” has charm and poignancy, but with such an extraordinary talent, it could be even more.

Karen Weinstein

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