October 12, 2010
In the days before Tuesday’s one-man performance at The Paramount, my anticipation become more acute. Why? Because as I was writing my preview piece, a revelation of sorts came to me. I really love John Lithgow. He’s the actor you secretly love. It’s so secret that you probably don’t even realize the truth.
As I picked up my tickets at will call, I was thrilled to see I was going to be seated in the front row! Row AA seats 11 & 12, to be exact. As I gave my tickets to the usher, she led me down to the front. We were dismayed to find, however… that the seats were not there. Not because anyone was sitting in the chairs; I mean because they literally did not exist. The row went up to seat 10. Needless to say, this was… disappointing. What a bizarre situation to be in, and staffers quickly rushed to find another spot for me to sit. Happy to finally find an available seat, I was still chagrined at the missed opportunity to actually be down in front. To illustrate, those would have been here:
Oh well, no time for tears. The time of Lithgow was at hand, and I still had a great view. Settling down into my new chair, I observed and appreciated the sparse set up on stage. For a one-man show, it gave the air of an intimate affair, even if I was to watch the stage with a few hundred other patrons.
When John appeared on stage, he received a warm welcome from the crowd. Conversing casually with us all, he explained that this was actually his first trip to Austin, ever. Informing us that he arrived the day before, he had taken in some of the city and loved it (naturally, it’s Austin, who wouldn’t love this place?). Visiting the University of Texas campus, he showed us a little souvenir that was made specifically for him. Out of his bag, he brandished a burnt orange UT football jersey. The applause rained down from the audience, then graduated into thunderous cheers when Lithgow displayed the reverse side. It read, “Lithgow # 7” (check the slideshow at the conclusion of this article for proof).
Mr. Lithgow that night was performing his one-man theatrical memoir “Stories by Heart.” An intimate look at the types of stories that shaped his childhood, his adulthood and career. He performed two separate stories that evening. The first story was prefaced by an explanation regarding the significance of the tale in his personal life. “Uncle Fred Flits By,” by P.G. Wodehouse, was a favorite of the Lithgow siblings while growing up, discovered in a collection of short stories. His father would read it with, as John put it, “an exuberant flamboyance.” Now there’s a descriptor that can be applied to John himself; a point that he willfully conceded with a cheeky abandon.
“Uncle Fred” gained added significance for John several years ago. After a debilitating medical procedure, John’s father, Arthur Lithgow, was sapped of his lifelong vitality. John moved in with his parents for a month during his dad’s recuperation, and it pained him to see his father as a shell of his former self. After repeated attempts to connect with his parents (both in their 80s), John found the old collection of stories on the shelf and one night read the story to them.
It’s a hilarious tale filled with moments of mirth and outlandish situations. During his reading for his parents, John told us a magical thing happened. Arthur started laughing. It was described as a moment of crescendo, an involuntary act of merriment that revitalized his stoic and ailing father. Laughter and gaffaws burst forth like a fountain, and John credits “Uncle Fred” as the catalyst that brought his father back from the dead.
The story is about a young man named Pongo and a eccentric afternoon jaunt with his outrageous Uncle Fred, a man capable of brewing mischief where ever he goes. Like a force of nature, Fred leads Pongo on an excursion to an estate where zany misunderstandings ensue involving the duo, servants, visitors, eel jelliers (that’s right, eels), and a parrot. Lithgow embodied every character while reciting the tale, and it was a riot to see him juggle this craziness effortlessly.
Boisterously merry, the story took a poignant turn as we realized Lithgow was recreating the very reading from that night years ago. When he addressed us all at the end as if we were his mother and father, the smiles remained, only now with tears sparkling in our eyes.
During the intermission, I had time to reflect on what I just witnessed. Was it merely the humor that made his storytelling so engaging? Was it Lithgow’s caliber of acting that elevated the silly story into a tale of humanity and the frailty of life? Was it the history he provided us before the story? Was it the vulnerability he displayed and earnestness of his candor? Likely all of the above. One thing was for certain, Lithgow was skilled at painting mental pictures. Whether it was the farce of “Uncle Fred Flits By” or the scene recounted at his parents’ home, it was all so real.
After the break, John came back out and immediately led the audience into a rhythmic hand-clapping. Once we were in unison, he began to sing a jolly-sounding song. A continuation of mirth from the previous story, it seemed. As we all listened to the lyrics, we quickly learned that the story told in the song was much darker than the melody let on. Entitled “Eggs & Marrow Bones,” it was a story of a wife who is desperate to kill her husband.
Yeah. Not so sunny, after all. And it was an appropriate segue into the second story he had for us that evening. “Haircut,” by Ring Lardner, was a story that Lithgow discovered in his junior high school years. It existed in a world John was familiar with. Where, as the new kid in town, he was subjected to cruel teenage torment varnished with excessive societal niceties. The tale is told directly to the audience, who plays the role of a customer in a barbershop. Gossip and chatter spill out of the barber’s mouth as he tells the tales of its citizens, particularly a popular townie who is clearly a bad seed but everyone makes excuses for, or else simply turns a blind eye to.
Lithgow embodies the town barber in his story, and we are his new customer, rapt at attention and sometimes blushing at how forthright and candid his tale is. Clearly, discretion is but a flag in the wind to the barber, and town secrets pass from a mouth as wide as a barn door. As the haircut progresses, we swing on a pendulum from shock, to disgust, to sympathy. Despite the affable nature of the barber (with his giddy but slightly creepy laugh), we can see the darkness under the surface like storm clouds on the horizon. It hints at a Midwestern passive-aggressive nature and duality in general. Lardner’s narrative is more than a shave and a haircut; the story itself cuts close us to the bone.
His performance of “Haircut” guided me along a path of anticipation and silent dread, and left me in a clearing of ambivalence about human nature. Nevertheless, I can not dismiss the power that John displayed up there on stage. I was riveted and, to reinforce a cliché, was on the edge of my seat. So often, stories like these can open our eyes and force us to confront that which we usually want to sweep under the rug. The beauty of performance (be it live acting or cinematic) is that it can place us in other people’s shoes, or perhaps reveal to us a pair we didn’t even know we possessed. This power of storytelling is one of the underlying elements to humanity itself. That night, Lithgow’s one-man show reminded me why.
Storytelling is a primal element of humanity exactly because it is crafted by us. These chronicles work because of our ability to connect with one another. And where the conscious mind leaves off, imagination can pick up the trail. This artistry can enlighten, transport us, and even rejuvenate the soul. Tuesday was like a fireside chat and a warm bedtime reading rolled into one.
Good night, John. Thanks. I hope you loved Austin, because we truly love you. And that’s no longer a secret.