At the start of his one-man show "Stories By Heart," which opened its two-day run Friday night in the 710 Main Theatre, John Lithgow delivered a poignant prologue.
"It makes me a little wistful to stand on the stage of the late, great and lamented Studio Arena Theatre," he said. But he went on to praise the vibrant state of theater in Western New York even without the once-mighty cultural force that was Studio Arena.
He then went on to rattle off the names of the Kavinoky Theatre, where his son Ian Lithgow has performed, along with Ujima, the Irish Classical Theatre Company, Road Less Traveled and Torn Space. And he dedicated his three performances this weekend to the Buffalo theater community at large.
This was an ideal way to respect the troubled history of the space in which he would perform while also looking forward its resurrection in a vastly different form - and to a new era of live theater in Buffalo.
And Lithgow is nothing if not devoted to the theater. His show is a two-pronged love-letter to his parents, who imbued him with a passion for stories and storytelling, and to the stories themselves.
"All theater is stories. All actors are storytellers," he said, going on to ask the audience to consider the question of why, exactly, we were "huddling in the half-light with a bunch of total strangers."
The immediate answer, at least, was to see Lithgow - winner of two Tony Awards, five Emmy Awards, a pair of Golden Globes and another pair of Oscar nods - do what he does best. Which, judging at least by the first half of the performance, is to chew up the scenery with a kind of unbridled glee.
He first told of how his parents read stories to him and his siblings as children and how, later on when his own father fell ill, he read those same stories to his parents. The agreed-upon favorite of Lithgows young and old was P.G. Wodehouse's "Uncle Fred Flits By," a farcical tale about a misbehaving uncle and his unwitting nephew getting into all sorts of hijinks in a London residence that does not belong to them.
In performing the piece, Lithgow takes on all the roles up to and including the winking parrot, with utter commitment and total disregard for anything resembling restraint. This was doubtless in tribute to his own father, an actor and theater producer he described as having "a kind of exuberant flamboyance that you might have recognized from someone else in the room."
He tromped across the stage in exaggerated steps, played a dizzying array of characters and contorted his face into any number of exaggerated expressions and absolutely luxuriated in Wodehouse's masterful language. The result was often hilarious.
If some details about his parents came across as somewhat saccharine, this sense faded away in the second act, for which Lithgow saved Ring Lardner's darker tale "The Haircut." His performance as a seemingly half-witted barber recounting a juicy bit of town gossip was alternately creepy and engrossing.
It's clear that Lithgow is engaged in a life-long love affair with stories. And with this touching, funny and above all generous exhibition of that love affair, he is graciously inviting the rest of us to take part in it, too.