For John Lithgow’s touring one-man show, all the actor needs is a chair and a book. “My only props,” he says. As the rave reviews of “Stories by Heart” indicate, one doesn’t need anything more for an emotional, hilarious night out in the company of one of America’s busiest and most versatile actors.
Lithgow has made a career of playing family men with strange secrets. In “3rd Rock From the Sun,” he was an alien; in his Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning turn in last season’s “Dexter,” he was a serial killer. But in his one-man show — which he’s been performing and perfecting since 2008 — audiences find that behind the family man is a loving son, who uses the power of storytelling to bring his father out of a health-based depression.
During the evening, Lithgow becomes a number of characters, using his voice, posture, movement and expression to tell the story of looking after his father and reading to him some of the same stories his father read to him 50 years earlier. Within this frame, Lithgow delights by reading a comic story by P.G. Wodehouse and a more serious one by Ring Lardner. The rest of his show is just as enjoyable.
It is easier or more difficult being the only one onstage?
It’s not easy. I mean, the nice thing about it is, it’s very much a conversation with an audience. It’s quite an informal evening. It only sort of turns into a performance halfway through each act, and kind of before the audience quite knows that I am acting. I try to take an eraser and erase the line between the conversation and the performance, and I like that. I basically take the proscenium and throw it away. I have not the slightest stage fright. For example, I just come out and start chatting. In fact, some of the evening, it’s completely off the top, it’s not even scripted. It’s a matter of putting the audience at ease, but also putting myself at ease.
Did your father act out these stories when he read to you?
Yeah, I mean not nearly to the degree that I do. But he was a wonderful reader, a wonderful storyteller. He was a terrific actor. And it wasn’t just this book, he also read to us from “The Jungle Book,” and he read wonderful, silly poems out of a book of poems. It was just his way of really connecting with us. What I have discovered over the years in doing the show is that many, many people have that experience with their parents.
What was it like to return home after all these years and look after your parents?
It was really hard. I mean, it was really taking care of them; it was doing the job of a nursemaid. But it was beautiful. I really do think of it as one of the most important months of my life, because there it was, me really reconnecting with my parents on a very, very deep level. When I said goodbye to them at the end of that month, it was like leaving your children at summer camp. It was very hard for all three of us.
Your grandmother Ina used to recite long poems, correct? That’s a lost art, isn’t it?
It seems like a completely other world, a world without radio and television, but that is how people amused themselves. My grandmother grew up on Nantucket, and you can imagine what a lonely and desolate place that must have been year round, back in the 19th century, so that was her childhood. And boy, if you didn’t find ways to entertain yourselves, you did not get entertained.
Are some people natural storytellers?
Not necessarily, I think everybody tells stories. I just do it for a living — that’s sort of what I have assigned myself as a job. But you need it just as much as you need everything else; it’s the other product you can’t live without.
Were you always good at memorizing lines?
Not really, but I became a really expert memorizer when I did “3rd Rock From the Sun.” That was six years of constant fast memorizing. I really got good at it. It was a big task. I mean, (“Stories”) is a two-and-a-quarter-hour evening, and I don’t stumble over a syllable.
You are working on a memoir. Did that come out of the show?
Yes. It hadn’t even occurred to me to write a memoir, but HarperCollins asked me to write a memoir triggered by the show. And it’s really, really hard to write a long book. I find it murder, and yet it’s very compelling. I think they figured I would just flesh out what I have done onstage. But that’s not what’s happened. I have ended up writing a bona fide autobiography up until about the year 1980, sort of about the development of an actor and the whole mystery of interactions between actors and audience, which in a way is what the one-man show is about, too. One of the questions that I begin the evening with is, Why do we all need stories? Why do we all want to hear stories, and why do some of us want to tell them? It’s an interesting subject, which I think about all the time, as you can imagine.
‘STORIES BY HEART’
When: 8 p.m. Monday
Where: The Granada, 1214 State St.
Cost: $38 to $68 general, $21 UCSB students
Information: (805) 893-3535, www.artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu