Monday, February 26, 2018

Review - John Lithgow: Stories By Heart

A generous Tony-voter pal invited me to join her yesterday at Roundabout's production of John Lithgow: Stories by Heart.  I thought sure, I like John Lithgow!  He's one of my very favorite actors.  And I especially like free tickets!  😊  I sort of knew what the show was about, but not completely.  So it was with few expectations that I entered the American Airlines Theatre.

The house was full, which was nice, but the audience did skew a little...uh...mature.  It seems to me that Roundabout's Broadway house caters to this audience, which I have a bit of an issue with.  But I digress.  To be honest, I had a perfectly pleasant afternoon - John Lithgow is very engaging and he certainly knows how to tell a story (the fact that both of the stories he chose to tell sort of had negative depictions of the disabled had to be a coincidence, right?).  But I don't think I realized that he would be doing a reader's theater interpretation of two short stories onstage - I thought it would be more of a personal story with reminiscences of his life.  Well, there were some personal stories here and there and they were my favorite parts of the piece.  I would've liked to hear more about Lithgow's childhood and family, and less of the short stories, no matter how well he performed them.  I guess I just don't get why we would want to see that kind of piece in a Broadway house?  I mean, I know his point (I gather) was to relay his love of storytelling and his love for his father, and how stories and love are intertwined, but still...

photo credit: Sara Krulwich
The first act was built around a Ring Lardner short story called "Haircut," and it was a deceptively folksy, homespun tale that suddenly turned quite dark.  I enjoyed Lithgow's telling, and his acting, of the story, but my mind wandered here and there, and again I wished he were telling me something new, instead of reading me a story.  I found the second act story, "Uncle Fred Flits By," by P.G. Wodehouse, more engaging, probably because it was sillier and funnier, and it gave Lithgow the opportunity to play several characters and he was terrific in all of his roles.

All in all, Stories by Heart is being given a beautiful production - the set and lights are lovely and it moves quite elegantly throughout.  I enjoyed myself, but it just seemed, I don't know, not enough.  But I guess that's on me.  People around me seemed to be enjoying it just fine, without my hesitation.  Here's what really stuck with me, though - in the opening bits, Lithgow talked about his father, and about how he was so thrilled to be able to utter his dad's name on a Broadway stage.  THAT really moved me.  In fact, any time he expressed his love and admiration for his dad (well, his mom, too, but the show was built around memories of his dad), I was moved.  And so I started to think about my wonderful dad and how I would love to say HIS name on a Broadway stage someday.  Hopefully, some day I will be able to.  

But until that day, I'm going to use the rest of this post to tell a couple of inconsequential stories about my daddy, whom I believe to be a great man (my mother is a great woman, and deserving of many blog posts exclusively about her, but since Lithgow's show focused on his dad, I'm going to follow suit).  To loosely quote Jane Austen (and probably Emma Thompson), he is the kindest and best of men.  Throughout my life, my mom has been the dominant parent - as a stay-at-home mom, she had the most daily influence on me and my sister.  But my dad also enjoyed his opportunities to spend time with us outside the home, as our softball coach and as a guide/mentor in our various extracurricular clubs.  I'm sure that his book-reading, theater-loving daughter was completely alien to him, but he never ever has made me feel that way.  I have never felt anything but complete support and encouragement from him.  From the day I was born, both parents made me feel as if I could be whatever I wanted to be, if I was willing to work hard and be kind.  I like to think I learned a thing or two from them.

My dad is a very sensitive, gentle, loving man, who was rather emotionally abandoned by his family as a teen, but he was quickly adopted and adored by his in-laws, my mom's family.  He often refers to them as his brothers and sisters, not his in-laws.  My parents got married when they were quite young (my dad was just a little older than my nephew at the wedding, which terrifies me!).  You could almost say we grew up together.  And after seeing and feeling the effects of knowing that some kids in his family were loved more than the others, he made sure to treat my sister and me the same; he loves and appreciates us both, even though she and I are complete opposites.  I know he thinks we are the smartest, prettiest, most wonderful girls in the world and that's ok.  I believe him when he says it. He also knows that I'm not the best athlete, or the best driver, and he teases all the livelong day, but that's ok as well.  I'm grateful that he knows and appreciates me for who I am.  We've had our disagreements over the years, but we know how to listen to each other's perspectives with respect, even when we know we won't change the other's mind.

One of my favorite stories about my dad is from when I was seven or eight.  I had a bad habit of picking at my fingernails (unfortunately, I've started that bad habit again; maybe I need him to step in again) and my mom despaired of ever making me stop.  She threatened to spank me, and when that didn't work, she demanded my dad take me into the bathroom and give me a couple of whacks.  So he led me to the bathroom.  Once in there, I was silently crying, scared I was going to be spanked, and my daddy whispered to me, "Cry louder, as if I'm spanking you."  Because he just couldn't do it.  I'm not sure if my theater career was born that night, but I tried to be more careful about my fingers after that, because I didn't want to get him into trouble with my mom.

When we were little, my dad used to go deer hunting with his father and brothers.  He kept a couple of rifles downstairs.  I don't think he enjoyed hunting all that much, but he did enjoy spending time with his father, even though they were never all that close.  Or as close as my father wished they could've been.  I never liked those rifles, and I avoided looking at them whenever I went to the basement.  Eventually, I stopped going to the basement.  When I was in college, I asked my dad to please get rid of the rifles, because they scared me and made me sad after the death of a loved one.  And he got rid of them.  Nothing else had to be said.  I only wish I had asked him sooner, because I know he would've listened to me.

There are a million sweet stories about my dad, but I'll just close with one from last year.  He doesn't really understand what I do for a living, though he's proud to tell people his daughter lives and works in New York.  But, last year, I was featured in an email campaign at my work.  My mom told me later that he had her print out the email and he takes it with him to his lodge meetings, to show off his baby.  That's my wonderful daddy, who loves unconditionally, and who deserves to have his name shouted from all the stages.  Thank you, John Lithgow, for reminding me of that...

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