By NATALIE SAYEWICH
Thursday, April 16, 2015
In a storied acting career that has spanned more than 40 years and included countless roles in live theater, television and film, John Lithgow has only one project that is based on his own, real life experience.
In “Stories by Heart,” Lithgow intersperses the telling of his personal story with two favorite stories from his childhood, acting out all the characters in “The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs and “Uncle Fred Flits By” by P.G. Wodehouse.
The one-man show, which takes place on Saturday at East Carolina’s Wright Auditorium, serves as the centerpiece for the S. Rudolph Alexander Performing Arts Series 2014-2015 season. Lithgow — a Tony, Emmy and Golden Globe Award-winning actor —starred in the television series “3rd Rock from the Sun” as well as countless movies, and has most recently played the title role in The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production of “King Lear.”
It never occurred to him, though, to write or perform something based on his own experience. But in 2002, he began retelling the stories from his past back to his father.
“I took care of my parents when my dad was old and ill,” Lithgow said in a phone interview. “He was very despondent and had just had a major operation and sort of given up on life. I knew immediately that my job was beyond just taking care of him — it was cheering him up and giving him a reason to go on. I got the idea of reading him bedtime stories from a book that he had used to read bedtime stories to me and my siblings when we were all kids.”
He took the big, old book of short stories and asked his father to choose one.
“He picked this hilarious story by P.G. Wodehouse called ‘Uncle Fred Flits By,’ which I vaguely remembered, but only dimly,” he said. “I read it to him and it so delighted him and made him laugh, in my mind it brought him back to life and he lived for another 18 months.”
The reaction that the storytelling got from his father stuck in Lithgow’s mind, and when he tried it out on a group of friends, they were as enamored with his connection to the stories as they were with the stories themselves, and so he decided to work his own story in and make a one-man show. Since the actor first performed it at New York’s Lincoln Center in 2008, it has grown and evolved bit-by-bit.
One of the changes Lithgow has made is the replacement of one of the initial stories he told with another, which resulted in the show being a better fit for a broader audience.
“There was a very challenging and dark story which I decided to replace with a very, very scary story, “The Monkey’s Paw,” a wonderful horror story — and kids love that,” he said. “The fact is, the two stories that I do — the very scary “Monkey’s Paw” and the very funny P.G. Wodehouse — those were the two favorite stories for all four of us siblings when we were kids. We just loved being scared to death, so that’s how I begin the evening, and then I end the evening with laughter.”
Amid filming movies and television shows, performing “Stories By Heart” represents another chance for Lithgow to perform on stage.
“I do think that performing live for a live audience in a theater is at the very heart of what I do as an actor,” he said. “That’s not true of all actors, but I consider myself a theater actor first. I love that transaction. I love being in the same space with the audience as they’re receiving the story. Movies and TV are all very well, but you’re not there — you did it a year before.”
A one-man show, however, presents a different sort of challenge for an actor who is more accustomed to being surrounded by fellow cast members, whether on stage or in front of a camera.
“It’s a big challenge. On the most elemental level, it’s just lonely,” he said. “One of the great things about theater is the group experience, the company experience. I just came off of two plays in New York, ‘King Lear’ and ‘A Delicate Balance.’ They were both wonderful ensemble groups and I left with great new friends. The whole experience of preparing for opening night and performing it for the last time — they’re so sentimental and heartfelt. It really is wonderful and that’s all missing when you’re doing it by yourself. You have your stage manager and your road producer and you have your audience, you just rely on them.”
He said he gives “Stories by Heart” all he’s got.
“I play all the characters. I treat it as a kind of magic act, creating a whole world, just me alone on stage. The whole evening is about my experience in stories, from when I was a child, but growing up, I became an actor, which in my mind is a storyteller. …
“I grew up in a theater family with a great tradition of storytelling. It’s very much an evening about the act of storytelling and why all of us want, need and love stories.”