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How director Daniel Sullivan is helping the actor honor his father
Tony-winning director Daniel Sullivan is known for helming complex, multicharacter plays on Broadway, from sumptuous period pieces like last season's revival of The Little Foxes, to new works by the likes of David Auburn, Donald Margulies, and David Lindsay-Abaire. So what's he doing directing a very personal solo show? Oh, just helping his old pal, Tony- and Emmy-winning actor John Lithgow, pay tribute to his dad and the art of storytelling.
"It's always fun to work with John," says Sullivan, who has directed Lithgow in four other productions including The Columnist on Broadway and King Lear at the Public's Shakespeare in the Park. "I love being around him and his energy and good spirit."
A mix of family history and dramatic readings, John Lithgow: Stories by Heart was born in 2008 during a brief run directed by Jack O'Brien at Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse Theater. Over the past decade, the actor has honed the piece by performing it all over the country, from 2,000-seat theatres to friends' living rooms. With O'Brien busy rehearsing the upcoming Broadway revival of Carousel, Lithgow turned to Sullivan to help bring the show to Roundabout Theatre Company's American Airlines Theatre, where it runs through March 4.
"John asked me to come in and give him a hand," the director says. And it made sense: In addition to their longtime friendship, Sullivan had once met Lithgow's father Arthur, a pioneering regional-theatre producer who figures prominently in the narrative. The director recalls the elder Lithgow as an "elegant and impressive" man. Another cool connection: Sullivan had worked at Ohio's Great Lakes Theater Festival, which Arthur founded.
Sullivan has worked on other autobiographical solo plays with Charlayne Woodard, and he notes that with such sensitive material, he tries to act as a facilitator. "The personal part of these stories belongs entirely to the actor-writer," he explains. "I'm more there as a sort of editor and to help simplify the staging and organize the writing."
During John Lithgow: Stories by Heart, the star uses family stories to inform two selections from the compendium Tellers of Tales. Lithgow beams as he shows the audience his well-worn copy -- his only prop -- before launching into Ring Lardner's "Haircut" in Act I, and P.G. Wodehouse's "Uncle Fred Flits By" in the second.
Both stories were favorites of Lithgow's father, who died in 2004. Although the former is a terrifying tale about a small-town barber, Arthur used to recite it as a bedtime story to his four young children. Decades later, Lithgow read the second tale to his ailing dad one evening, a memory he will always cherish.
In an earlier version of the show, the two stories appeared in the opposite order. But Sullivan feels the current structure improves the pacing of the evening, and provides an emotional wallop of an ending. "'Uncle Fred Flits By' was what got his father laughing and brought him back to life," Sullivan says. "It's important as a final story."
When Lithgow traveled with Stories by Heart, he would always kick off performances by talking about what he had seen that day in each town. Since Lithgow resides in New York City, he doesn't share those kinds of visitor observations for the current run. However, he does reflect on the honor and wonder of saying his father's name aloud on a Broadway stage.
Yet Broadway isn't the show's final destination -- or even its final incarnation. "John will continue to do it on empty stages in small and large theatres around the country," Sullivan says. "Because he does these one-night stands, he's not going to be able to do what we're doing technically. He'll just depend, as he should, on his words. 'Two boards and a passion,' you know."
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Top image: John Lithgow in John Lithgow: Stories by Heart. Photo by Joan Marcus.