Archive for Thursday, September 13, 2012

John Lithgow’s hilarious ‘Stories by Heart’ has deep subtext

Actor John Lithgow will perform his acclaimed one-man show, "Stories by Heart," Monday, Sept. 17, at the Lied Center.

Actor John Lithgow will perform his acclaimed one-man show, "Stories by Heart," Monday, Sept. 17, at the Lied Center.

September 13, 2012


Past Event
John Lithgow, Stories by Heart

  • When: Monday, September 17, 2012, 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
  • Where: Lied Center, 1600 Stewart Drive, KU campus, Lawrence
  • Cost: $24 - $46
  • More on this event....

Upcoming events at the Lied Center

Intergalactic Nemesis, Saturday, Sept. 22; two performances, 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.

Ragamala Dance, Sacred Earth, Friday, Sept. 28, 7:30 p.m.

Kelly Hunt, Friday, Oct. 5, 7:30 p.m.

Jazz vocalist Nnenna Freelon, performing “Lena Horne, A Lovesome Thing,” Friday, Oct. 12, 7:30 p.m.

So Percussion, Thursday, Oct. 18, 7:30 p.m.

Classical guitarist Robert Belinic, Sunday, Oct. 21, 2 p.m.

“Here to Stay: The Gershwin Experience,” Sunday, Oct. 28, 2 p.m.

Quixotic, Friday, Nov. 9, 7:30 p.m.

David Gonzalez with Larry Harlow and the Latin Legends Band, “¡Sofrito!” Saturday, Nov. 10, 7:30 p.m.

Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” Wednesday, Dec. 12, 7:30 p.m.

Pianist Andrew Tyson, Sunday, Jan. 27, 2 p.m.

An Evening with Suzanne Vega and daughter Ruby Froom, Saturday, Feb. 2, 7:30 p.m.

Indian Ink Theatre Co., “Guru of Chai,” Feb. 7-9, 7:30 p.m.

The Pipes and Drums of the Black Watch 3rd Battalion the Royal Regiments of Scotland and the Band of Scots Guards, Friday, Feb. 15, 7:30 p.m.

it gets better, Saturday, Feb. 16, 7:30 p.m.

“West Side Story,” Tuesday, Feb. 19, 7:30 p.m.

Russian National Orchestra, Thursday, Feb. 21, 7:30 p.m.

Clarinetist Narek Arutyunian, Sunday, March 3, 2 p.m.

Swiss pantomime troupe Mummenschanz, Friday, March 8, 7:30 p.m.

Jazz violinist Regina Carter, Friday, April 5, 7:30 p.m.

Brentano String Quartet, Friday, April 12, 7:30 p.m.

For more information and to purchase tickets, visit

Telling stories is essentially what actors do, which means John Lithgow has been telling stories virtually all his life.

“It’s an odd thing we do — to go and cluster in a dark theater and watch ‘pretend’ entertainment, which we know is not real,” Lithgow says. “But it’s there just to perk up our lives — and we can’t do without it.”

Television audiences may think that the Tony- and Emmy-winning actor has been to Lawrence before, if they’ve seen Lithgow in the what-if nuclear holocaust TV movie “The Day After,” but such is the power of stories and the tricks they play on us.

“My part was entirely shot in Los Angeles, so everybody thinks that I’ve been there, but I never have,” Lithgow says, “and I always knew eventually I’d get there.”

That moment is Monday as John Lithgow presents a one-man theatrical memoir called “Stories by Heart” at the Lied Center. He has been performing the show on stage since 2008, but it has its origins in Lithgow’s own childhood. The show is inspired by the poems that his grandmother used to recite by heart and the stories his father used to read to him out of a “big, fat book.”

When his father, Arthur Lithgow — a director and producer of Shakespeare festivals — fell ill in 2002, John began reading to him regularly. One particular favorite of his father’s was an old, short story from 1935 that Arthur used to read to young John out of that same big book of tales: “Uncle Fred Flits By” by English humorist P.G. Wodehouse.

“I had read this story to him when he was an old man — old, frail and fearing death — and the story so enlivened him and excited him, it sort of brought him back to life,” Lithgow says. “And from that experience, it took a few years of idly thinking about it, but I began to see it as a moment that crystallized everything I felt about performance, acting — what I do for a living — storytelling.”

Lithgow memorized the Wodehouse story and performed it for about 25 friends — many in the New York theater community — in a rehearsal room at New York’s Lincoln Center. Before he took on the story and acted it all out himself, though, he gave a brief introduction about his personal connection with “Uncle Fred” and his father. It turns out his friends were especially fascinated by that.

For years, Lithgow’s friends had been urging the actor to write something for himself to perform that was based on his own experiences. “Stories by Heart” grew out of that request, and encompasses not only the Wodehouse story but also the background and history with his father. The full one-man performance is full of poignancy, but “Uncle Fred Flits By” itself has been described by the New York Times as “a hilarious, 45-minute tour de force that doubles as a primer on acting, including body language, vocal changes, timing and facial expression.”

“It’s very, very funny — English — very high style, and there are 10 characters and I play all 10 characters,” Lithgow says. “I see it as kind of an onstage magic act, bringing all 10 of these characters to life and sustaining scenes where four or five people are all talking at 80 miles an hour.”

Evolving performance

Over the past five years, “Stories by Heart” has morphed into a two-act performance with an intermission. The second act has Lithgow acting out another story in his father’s book. “Haircut,” by Ring Lardner, makes a “wonderful counterpoint” to the manic comedy of Wodehouse, and is also wildly different in its presentation. Set in Michigan in the 1920s, every word of the stowry is spoken by one barber as he gives a shave and a haircut to a stranger in town.

“The story begins very comical but it becomes darker and more suspenseful as it goes along without the barber quite even being aware of the darkness of the story,” Lithgow says. “He tells it all as a kind of comical yarn, but it’s not comic.”

All of this happens with a minimalistic stage setup. All Lithgow needs is a chair, an end table and the book from which his father used to read these stories.

Back in the days of Vaudeville, performers had what they called their “trunk show,” meaning something that could be pulled out and performed for anyone at anytime. Lithgow considers “Stories by Heart” to be his trunk show, and says if he’s really lucky, it would be something he could do forever.

Shifting gears

From an Oscar nomination for playing a transsexual ex-football player in 1982’s “The World According to Garp” to his recent role as a serial killer masquerading as a family man on Showtime’s “Dexter,” Lithgow’s career in film and onstage has been varied.

His best-known role, however, may be the six seasons he spent headlining the NBC sitcom “Third Rock From the Sun,” where he played a young extraterrestrial hiding in the body of an older physics professor. His gleefully silly performances as High Commander Dick Solomon earned Lithgow three Emmys, a Golden Globe and two Screen Actors Guild Awards.

When asked how he approaches tackling these very different characters, Lithgow laughs as if it’s all old hat. But there is a method to the madness, whether he’s pining for laughs or trying to scare people.

“You basically approach everything the same way — finding the reality of each scene and the consistency of the character. It’s just that your intent is very different,” he says. “But I love the challenge. I think it’s the Shakespeare actor in me from when I was kid. When you spend a summer in a Shakespeare festival playing five different roles — you know Shakespeare wrote ‘King Lear’ and ‘Hamlet,’ but he also wrote ‘The Comedy of Errors’ and ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ and completely ridiculous farces — that’s what I love to do. I’m a character actor; I love to shift gears.”

Monday night at the Lied Center, theater-goers will be able to watch Lithgow shift gears in person as he takes on multiple characters and wild mood swings in his quest to answer the fundamental question of why storytelling is so important.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.