About myself and reflections on a master

Posted by Matthew Werkheiser, English Major, Class of 2014

I must admit, I have never written on a blogging site before, but I am greatly looking forward to using this outlet as a means of developing a more intimate style for myself. But first, I should introduce myself , my name is Matthew Werkheiser, I am a senior and an English Lit major with a fond love of Irish and existential literature, John Milton, and romanticism. I have only been at Lehigh since I was a junior, having previously attended Lebanon Valley College. I cannot attest to my undergraduate journey being a splendid one. It is, for lack of a better word…interesting…but as I am the culmination of all my experiences, I must appreciate it for what it has taught me. My freshman and sophomore years were rocky, but Lehigh has absolutely made everything worth it (even that semester when I thought I was a bio major) and I finally have found a community which has helped me grow not only as a scholar, but also as a human being. I just wish I had been able to experience a full four years here, rather than my short (yet deliciously sweet) two.

But, without getting too emotional, I would like to spend the rest of this post reflecting on a recent performance I had the opportunity to see. On Saturday (the 16th) John Lithgow graced the stage of Zoellner with his one-man-show, “Stories by Heart.” I myself am familiar with John Lithgow from his absolutely show-stopping guest performance as Arthur Mitchell in Showtimes serial-killer extravaganza, Dexter. And when I say show stopping, I literally mean show stopping. He ruined the show for me as a result of his eclipsing performance. He was the apex of Dexter‘s unwieldy eight season run. Every season after Lithgow’s performance was, in my opinion, a huge disappointment. If you want to see Lithgow as a force of nature, watch season four of Dexter. My love of Dexter aside, the man has been in other things: he was Lord Farquaad in Shrek, Reverend Moore in Footloose (unfortunately a movie now tainted with the meme tour-de-force that is Kevin Bacon), and Dr. Dick Solomon in 3rd Rock from the Sun.

As a lit major and lover of John Lithgow, “Stories By Heart” was something that, just by virtue of the title, I had to go see. I was not entirely sure what to expect. From everything I had read about it, the show was something spectacular, but from all the photos I saw I was sort of half expecting John Lithgow to be sitting in an arm chair telling the audience what it was like to be an actor and how the actor transforms the art of storytelling on the stage. I was half right, but I was delightfully half-wrong. He didn’t tell us of the transformation, but rather showed us. Beginning with the story of his father’s early life as a Shakespearean actor in Ohio and his own migratory childhood, Lithgow explains how storytelling was the glue that bound his family together despite their constant traveling. Fast forward to the early 2000’s, and Lithgow reminisces on his experience taking care of his father in his final months. He remembers how, after a corrective surgery, his father near lost the will to live, and was but a husk of the vibrant and colorful man he once was. In order to relight the fire within his father, Lithgow goes and finds the old storybook his father used to read to him from and finds his favorite story which he wishes to “read” to the audience. Before he sits to begin, he tells the audience of how his father smiled and looked alive for the first time in months, and for us to “see if [we] can tell where an old man started to laugh again.”

Lithgow started by read from the book but as he got through the first couple paragraphs, he began to read without looking at the pages. He kept reciting and then proceeded to close the book and get up from the chair. What was coming next was the part I was half-wrong about: he became a one-man show, weaving together his favorite childhood story in a way I was absolutely not expecting. His characters, his stage presence, his seamless transition from persona to persona was mesmerizing. I honestly could have listened to him all evening. Perhaps I am overly sensitive to the art that is storytelling, but this was the first time I actually truly saw it as art. The best way I can describe the experience is…try to remember back to a time when you were a child, and your capacity for imagination was not as bridled as it is now (I am of the opinion that the older we get, the more organized our imagination becomes)…but remember that sense of imagination or mental picture that our child brains could paint…Lithgow made tangible that mental spectacle we all used to so easily create before age and life caught up to us.

Reading a book is always a very insular experience. This was one of the few times I was truly aware of the difference between a story and storytelling, as storytelling focuses on that often forgotten sense of communal experience. I have not been read to in a very long time, honestly probably not since I was a child. But, I think for that entire audience, Lithgow all made us feel like children again, and he was our communal father, using his fantastic capacity for theatre and acting to create for us an experience many of us probably haven’t had in a very long time. What he did that night on stage, I cannot truly describe with words, nor do I have words that could do it justice. It was something that had to be felt, and I absolutely now understand how something as simple as a beloved story could stoke the coals inside his ailing father. “Stories By Heart” solidified within me what I love so much about reading and writing, and that it is the goal of all storytellers to incite that sort of simple passion within listeners. John Lithgow is a master craftsman, and despite the obnoxious laughter of the woman sitting to the left of me, I left wishing I could have him read to me every evening.