When John Lithgow was a young boy, he and his two youngest siblings would curl up before bedtime as their father read from the family copy of "Tellers of Tales," a compilation of 100 short stories from around the world.
These were not the usual bedtime stories, nor was Lithgow's father the usual storyteller.
Arthur Washington Lithgow III, an experienced actor and an important figure in the American regional theater movement, skipped over Mother Goose and the Brothers Grimm in favor of pieces like P.G. Wodehouse's side-splitting story "Uncle Fred Flits By" and Ring Larder's chilling tale "The Haircut." The Lithgow children hung on every word.
And those two stories, which John Lithgow will retell in his one-man show "Stories by Heart" Friday and Saturday in the 710 Main Theatre, helped to forge a father-son bond that remained strong until Arthur Lithgow's death in 2004.
"For all of us, it was our most intimate connection with him," Lithgow said in a recent phone interview. "It was this moment of real connection when we were kids. I was the third-oldest, and some of the stories were above my head, but it didn't matter. I would say the stories were about half of the experience and the other was just the closeness."
Decades later, as Arthur Lithgow was ailing and fighting off depression, his son was desperate to find a way to cheer him up. And, in a poetic role reversal, Lithgow picked up "Tellers of Tales" and asked his father to choose a story.
"He picked P.G. Wodehouse's 'Uncle Fred Flits By.' [As] I was discovering how delightful it was, and just as I was discovering the fun of the story, he started to laugh. And it was the first time I had heard him laugh since I'd come to take care of him," said Lithgow, who was born in Rochester and went on to a successful stage and film career. "I don't think the evening 'Stories by Heart' would even exist if that hadn't happened. That was the exciting incident. It was a combination of discovering how wonderful that story was and realizing how effective storytelling could be in literally saving someone's life."
All of that has made its way into "Stories by Heart," which Lithgow described as "a conversation with new friends" about his love for stories and for his father - two things that are inextricably linked.
Lithgow is hoping that the show, in which he plays nine characters, will resonate with audiences on many levels during its three performances this weekend.
"I want them to have all kinds of emotional reactions to it," Lithgow said. There is the sheer comedy of the Wodehouse story, and the suspense of "The Haircut." "But then I also want them to connect with my own history, the stories I tell about my dad and about my own childhood in small-town Ohio. To make them think about what storytelling means to all of us, what theater means to all of us, why in the world did they even come to watch me perform? I just want to stimulate them."
In a way, Buffalo's own theater community has already benefitted from Arthur Lithgow's passion for storytelling. John Lithgow passed the storytelling tradition down to his own children - including his oldest son, Ian, a therapist and local actor who occasionally appears in productions here.
"Ian's my oldest, and of course I read stories to him," Lithgow said. "The most delightful thing of all has been acting with him over the years. He was on 'Third Rock [From the Sun]' and he does wonderful work in Buffalo . I'm completely proud of him."
"Stories by Heart" will be the first official performance entirely under the auspices of the new 710 Main organization (the 710 Main Theatre hosted a MusicalFare Theatre production in June and Shea's brought in Seth Rudetsky for Curtain Up!). For Lithgow, who keeps tabs on the Buffalo theater community through his son, the experience of performing on the stage is a bittersweet one.
"I tell you, it was a shock to professional theater actors when Studio Arena closed, because that was a really important and respected institution. So it's a kind of melancholy task to go back there and perform on the Studio Arena stage," he said. "It would be great if that became a vibrant space again, but I think it's important to remind everybody how much terrific theater there is in Buffalo, with or without Studio Arena."
In the end, "Stories by Heart" is Lithgow's three-pronged love letter to storytelling, to his father and, finally, to the place where those two things meet: the theater.
"You just so badly want a connection when you go to the theater. You just want to be connected with what you're seeing. And it's a tough business, not just acting but theatergoing, because half the time you're disappointed," Lithgow said. "But when it's good, it's fantastic, and you always go to the theater in hopes that you will have that experience. And I always feel it's kind of my obligation to give it all I've got, to give people as much of that experience as I can."