If the title of John Lithgow’s one-man show, Stories by Heart, implies an evening of sweetness and sentimentality, his photo in the program suggests otherwise. Wearing a grin on his face and a parrot on his shoulder, this master of ambiguity manages to simultaneously convey disarming charm and a hint of impish malevolence. Those two elements also converge during the course of his thoroughly winning show.
The much-lauded theater, film, and television actor made his Santa Barbara stage debut at the Granada on Monday night, in a performance sponsored by UCSB Arts & Lectures. He put together the show with director Jack O’Brien in 2008 and has been touring with it ever since; you can catch it in January and February at the Mark Taper Forum in L.A.
It is, as he informs us at the outset, both an evening of stories and an inquiry into why we share them. The two tales he tells provide two different answers to that question: The first, P.G. Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By,” comforts; the second, Ring Lardner’s “Haircut,” disquiets.
As he informs us in a tender but not sticky-sweet preamble, the Wodehouse was part of his childhood (his father regularly read it to John and his siblings); much later, it became a way for him to reconnect with his elderly, sickly dad. Lardner’s darker vision helped him survive early adolescence, a tough period in which he kept getting uprooted as the family moved from one Ohio town to another.
After putting them in personal context, Lithgow acts out each story, portraying all 10 characters in the Wodehouse farce and then giving a chilling characterization of Lardner’s narrator, a small-town barber who spins a dark story while giving a stranger a haircut. His miming of the barber’s activities keeps our eyes occupied even as our minds are engrossed by the story, a tale of cruelty and vengeance that this razor-wielding man finds a bit too amusing for our comfort.
Lithgow’s craft is impeccable, but he is never showy here: The material is the star. Stories, Lithgow implies, help us connect with one another and better understand ourselves. The best of them can serve as mirrors, reflecting back our confused and conflicting emotions and helping us find clarity—or at least feel less alone. Hearing them performed by a peerless actor only intensifies that priceless effect.