At the start of his solo show, “John Lithgow: Stories By Heart,” the writer-performer has the good manners to acknowledge that most one-handers are tiresome. “Why is this man plunging himself into this tired old dramatic form, as tedious as it is narcissistic?,” he moans. But this actor creates an exception to the rule.
For one thing, Lithgow has a theatrically compelling reason to take the stage alone. The show explores the power of storytelling; it asks why hearing a story out loud can be so satisfying. By becoming a storyteller himself — he recites Oliver Wendell Holmes’ poem “The Deacon’s Masterpiece, or The Wonderful One-Hoss Shay” and P.G. Wodehouse’s story “Uncle Fred Flits By” — Lithgow embodies his point, inviting us to consider why the tales we’re hearing are so interesting. (Or why they aren’t. He acknowledges that in entertainment, “One man’s rose is another man’s garlic.”)
The conceit encourages auds to make their own connection to the material, without demanding that we celebrate Lithgow’s life. He grounds the classics by explaining what they meant to his family, but his biography is supporting material, not the solipsistic main event.
Yet by framing them as evidence of a larger point, Lithgow makes his anecdotes vital. When he talks about reading Wodehouse to his ailing father, who died in 2004, he beautifully evokes the power of storytelling. When he describes his childhood admiration for his grandmother, who recited the Holmes poem to Lithgow and his siblings, he conjures the storyteller as a type of magician. (The uncredited set design suits the grandmother tales, since its comfy chair, fringed lamp and collection of dusty throw rugs have a vintage flavor.)
A master orator himself, Lithgow expertly crafts his perf. Working with director Jack O’Brien, he finds just the right pauses, inflections and double takes to let each story spring to life. He also strikes the perfect balance between stalking the stage and sitting still, proving that stories make good theater whether they are fully enacted or simply recited.
His technical achievement is threaded with genuine emotion. Lithgow seems honestly moved when he describes his family, and when he shows one of his father’s actual books — the one containing “Uncle Fred Flits By” — his excitement gives the prop a holy aura. Because he’s so invested in understanding why stories matter, his passion is easy to share.