John Lithgow's Broadway 'Heart' beats back to Boulder

John Lithgow. Stories by Heart. Photo by Joan Marcus‘Stories are the life’s blood to all of us,’ John Lithgow says. Photo by Joan Marcus.

John Lithgow, again the toast of Broadway, gave Boulder audiences a sneak peek at his intimate play back in 2011

Note: This interview was originally published in The Denver Post on Aug. 25, 2011, when John Lithgow came to Boulder to perform Stories by Heart to help launch Boulder’s Local Theatre Company. Lithgow is now performing the play on Broadway through March 4.

By John Moore
Senior Arts Journalist

The symmetry was exquisite and heartbreaking.

A grown son, like millions before him and millions to come, struggling with how best to care for his sad, sick parents, reading them bedtime stories — the same ones they had read to him as a boy.

It was especially hard for actor John Lithgow to reconcile the depressed man before him with the father he had always known. “He had lost his spirit, and his will to go on,” said Lithgow. “He had all but given up.”

JohnLithgowQuoteArthur Lithgow had lived as the consummate gypsy, an actor and director who instilled in all his young Lithgows a love for storytelling. He was a man of such gusto, he once covered for an ill fellow actor by playing both Baptista and Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew — at the same time. He used a black cloak and an orange cap to distinguish the two characters, “and the audience just roared,” said John Lithgow, award-winning star of stage and screens big and small.

But in 2002, after months of caring for his parents, Lithgow just could not cheer his father up, “and I knew that was my No. 1 task,” he said.

The idea hit him like a bolt.

He combed through his parents’ bookshelves until he came upon an old tome called Tellers of Tales, a collection of 100 short stories his father had often read to his kids.

“I told my parents to pick a story as they were lying in bed, and they chose P.G. Wodehouse’s Uncle Fred Flits By, ” Lithgow said.

Lithgow launched into the zany tale, “and as I was reading it, my father started to laugh,” he said. “In my mind, in that moment … he came back to life.”

Seeing it, Lithgow said, “crystallized all my thoughts about acting and performing and entertaining and storytelling.” It hit him why we all want and love stories in our lives: “They persuade us we are human, and they reacquaint us with our own emotions,” he said. “They are the life’s blood to all of us.”

Lithgow comes to Boulder’s Chautauqua Auditorium on Sunday to perform his one-man stage memoir, Stories by Heart.

It’s billed as the inaugural production by the Local Theatre Company founded by Boulder’s Pesha Rudnick. She’s Lithgow’s niece — the daughter of another sibling who grew up spellbound by Arthur Lithgow, teller of tales.

But that’s not why he’s coming to Boulder.

“Oh, I’ll do the show at the drop of a hat,” Lithgow said of Stories by Heart. “If I were a vaudevillian in the old days, this would be called my trunk show. I just carry it around and do it anywhere.”

New York Times: Stories by Heart is delightful and uplifting

In Boulder, he will reflect on how storytelling shaped his upbringing while he’s performing — not merely telling! — Uncle Fred Flits By and the decidedly darker Haircut, by Ring Lardner. The first is a silly British comedy in which Lithgow plays 10 outrageous characters (including a parrot). The second he calls “a darkly comic and extremely mordant American story.”

John Lithgow as Winston Churchill in TheCrownLithgow believes there has been a renaissance in great storytelling of late, citing Elizabeth Stroud’s Olive Kitteridge, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionistsas favorites, as well as old standby John Irving, who helped vault Lithgow to fame by penning The World According to Garp, the film version of which earned Lithgow his first Oscar nomination.

(Pictured at right: John Lithgow recently won his sixth Emmy Award for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in the Netflix drama The Crown.)

But as a matter of nightly routine, storytelling has been under siege in households across America for decades. “And it all started with that (expletive) remote control!” Lithgow said.

“I think our sensibilities have changed in the way stories are delivered to us,” he said. We’ll rotely sit in front of a TV for five hours, but we can’t stand still for 40 minutes while our own parents tell us tuck-in tales.

But Lithgow is an optimist. He cites the recent sold-out, seven-hour off-Broadway production of Gatz, which takes the audience through every word of The Great Gatsby.

And Irving’s recent opus, Last Night in Twisted River — another period novel Lithgow says his hero writes “almost in defiance of the snappy 200-page novels that are so popular.”

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

“People do respond to great storytelling,” he said. “People get surprised by their patience. And I like to think that there’s a great hunger for that, almost because of and in the face of the digital revolution.”

Those who sate that hunger with Lithgow on Sunday will hear two stories framed by the narrator, now 65, telling his very personal story about telling stories to his parents.

“People identify so powerfully to that aspect of the evening, especially people of my age who have older parents,” he said. “Once you get north of 50 or 60, that experience becomes extremely poignant and intense.”

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S. by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

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