"All theater is stories. All actors are storytellers," John Lithgow said in his warm introduction to the audience before asking, "Why do you, all of us, want to hear stories? Why do some of us want to tell them?"
In the two hours that followed, Lithgow managed to answer his own questions with stunning poignancy in Stories by Heart, a one-man show written by Lithgow and produced for one night, Tuesday, at the Lexington Opera House as part of the Alltech Fortnight Festival.
An intimate and deeply stirring exploration of the purpose of storytelling, Stories by Heart weaves short, moving personal narratives from Lithgow's own life with word-for-word reproductions of longer literary tales. An award-winning television, stage and film actor, Lithgow is a sensitive but powerful storyteller, handily transporting the audience to a simpler, more magical time, demonstrating how a lone story, well told, might keep up the morale of a struggling young family or help a suffering old man, in this case, his own father, want to live again.
Presented with elegant simplicity — the set includes little more than a cozy armchair and some small furnishings — the production doesn't need any theatrical bells and whistles to get the job done. In fact, those would only get in the way of the show's real star, which is not so much Lithgow as the stories themselves.
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The way Lithgow is able to personally reveal himself before fading into the characters is one of the most artistically pleasing elements of the show. It's as if there is a gentle rhythm to the work: reveal oneself, then recede into the story, then emerge anew, over and over again. The result is an experience that feels less like a Play, with a capital P, than an evening in a very talented friend's living room.
The intimacy of the opera house doesn't hurt. Nor does Eric Cornwell's subtle but rich lighting design.
As for content, acts 1 and 2 vary wildly in themes while sharing the efficacy of storytelling. They also share the same source: a 1939 copy of a Lithgow family treasure, Teller of Tales, a short-story compilation that colored Lithgow's childhood, and later his adulthood, when he read from the book to his ailing father and mother.
Lithgow reads from this book, not a copy, but the family book itself, early in act 1. Settling into an armchair and donning a pair of reading glasses, Lithgow draws the audience into listener mode before eschewing the glasses, setting aside the book, and leaping to his feet to re-create the words and world of P.G. Wodehouse's hilarious tale Uncle Fred Flits By.
Excessively British and layered in multiple levels of humor and human observation, the story is a rich source of creative fodder for Lithgow. He robustly embodies the mischievous Uncle Fred before rapidly switching to a nervous nephew — a "pink chap" — a snotty British couple and several other characters. A new contortion of the face, pitch of the voice or crisp movement is often all that Lithgow needs to shift from character to character with alarming deftness.
In the second act, however, Lithgow portrays only one character, the barber in Ring Lardner's story Haircut. As American in act 2 as he was British in act 1, Lithgow easily settles into a spot-on regional Michigan accent and a seemingly simple character whose mannerisms and speech convey the increasingly dark and haunting complexity of small-town life. Lithgow cultivates a kind of half-funny, half-spooky infectious giggle as the barber shares town gossip, which perfectly matches the tone of Lardner's work. Impressively, he pantomimes an entire old-fashioned shave and haircut while telling the tale, lending an even rhythm of ordinary life to the pace of the storytelling.
Overall, Stories by Heart is an elegant love letter to the notion of story itself. Inheriting an understanding of theater's place in life from his father, Lithgow seems to perceive his storyteller role as an ancient profession. His approach might best be summed up by a character from another story, the Badger in Barry Lopez's children's book Crow and Weasel.
"If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed," the Badger says. "Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive."
We are lucky, for one night anyhow, to be reminded of this.