Why do we love to be told stories?
This past Sunday, actor John Lithgow returned to the Great Lakes Theater Festival for a performance of “Stories by Heart” which examines why people are entranced by listening to — and in some cases, telling — stories. Both a former member of GLTF and the son of its founder Arthur Lithgow, the younger Lithgow gave two performances of his show — a donor event on Saturday night and a public performance on Sunday afternoon.
“Stories by Heart” was born from Lithgow’s visits to his father when the older Lithgow was seriously ill and recovering from a very difficult surgery. John Lithgow, who joked he was the only sibling out of work at the time, went and stayed with his father and mother to help them while Arthur recovered. As can often happen when recovering from an illness, his once jovial father was reduced to a quiet shell of his former self.
When nothing seemed to be bringing his father out of this despondency, John happened upon the idea of reading stories to his parents each night at bedtime. With Tellers of Tales in hand – a collection of short stories compiled by W. Somerset Maugham that his father used to read – John would re-tell these stories to his father and mother, and amazingly his father was able to find his humor and strength again.
From this experience, Lithgow created two theatre pieces – performances of the short stories “Haircut” by Ring Lardner and “Uncle Fred Flits By” by P.G. Wodehouse. Lithgow initially performed them separately in 2008 and 2009. Now, he’s combined them into “Stories by Heart” which he’ll start touring nationwide this fall. Prior to the tour, he very fittingly returned to the Great Lakes Theater Festival to run the full show in front of an audience.
In “Uncle Fred Flits By,” Lithgow portrays nine characters in a story about Wodehouse’s lively Lord Ickenham and the misadventures he carries on with his sheepish nephew ‘Pongo.’ Pongo, who is always reluctant to have his Uncle visit, is pulled into a hilarious scheme of impersonations and on-the-spot plottings that the mischievous Uncle Fred puts into play. In reenacting the story, Lithgow plays all the characters with gusto — from Pongo and Uncle Fred, to a young ‘Pink Chap’ and his fawning love interest, to the disapproving mother of said love interest and even a parrot. Uncle Fred’s madcap machinations to bring ‘sweetness and light’ were the first thing after Arthur Lithgow’s surgery that made him laugh. And with John Lithgow’s dynamic retelling of Wodehouse’s tale, it’s no wonder.
In the second act, Lithgow performs “Haircut” by Ring Lardner. Lardner was an American sports columnist and short story writer, as well as the father of Ring Lardner, Jr. – one of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten and screenwriter of M*A*S*H*. Originally from the Midwest himself, Lardner Sr.’s “Haircut” is a wry look at what goes on in a small Michigan town through the eyes of the town’s barber. Over the course of a haircut that the barber gives to a nameless customer, he weaves a tale of love triangles, revenge, seemingly inconsequential gossip, and the kindness and wickedness that often go hand-in-hand in a small town.
Prior to the retelling of “Haircut,” Lithgow shares stories of his childhood growing up in the Midwest. Specifically, he recounts how his family moved a lot due to his father’s theatre and teaching engagements. When he was an adolescent, they moved to a small town in Ohio close to the Michigan border. Early on that year, he read “Haircut” for the first time in a textbook and the peculiar combination of decency and maliciousness resonated with him. He recalls a fellow classmate who showed kindness to him as the new kid in school, then shortly after bullied him with a horrible game of ‘Squirrel.’ Or the teacher whose excessive use of corporal punishment was later celebrated by his classmates when they graduated. Given Lithgow’s recent portrayal on Dexter of a barbaric serial-killing family man who exhibits this same disparity, I definitely geeked out when he reflected on these ideas.
Telling both of these short stories in the same show was an excellent choice for Lithgow as they were definite contrasts to one another. Although humorous at times, “Haircut” was much more darkly tinged than “Uncle Fred.” And with “Uncle Fred” written by a notably British author and “Haircut” by an American short story master, the styles and sensibilities of both were also quite different. By playing their differences against one another, Lithgow aptly demonstrated how storytelling can have very different purposes for the storyteller and contrasting effects on the audience.
The afternoon with John Lithgow at the Hanna Theatre was a very intimate and entertaining experience. We not only got to sit in our favorite seats – the banquettes, support one of our favorite Cleveland theatres, and enjoy delicious pumpkin ice cream during Ice Cream Social Sunday, but we also had the rare opportunity to listen to a gifted storyteller of Lithgow’s caliber weave a variety of imaginative, touching and humorous scenes for us.
By rereading “Uncle Fred Flits By” and “Haircut” to his father when he was ill, Lithgow realized how storytelling was a powerful healing force and raised his father’s spirits. And in sharing “Stories by Heart” with audiences, he continues to spread a ‘sweetness and light’ akin to the inimitable Uncle Fred.
Great Lakes Theater Festival 411: