BUFFALO - The good news, for lovers of the theater, is that the stage that was the Studio Arena Theater, in Buffalo, has light and action on it, once again, after long and dark days., spent empty.
The building is now called by its address: 710 Main Street, and it is administered by Shea's Performing Arts Center.
The first performance on the newly re-lighted stage was called ''Seth Rudetsky's Big Fat Broadway Show,'' a one-night performance by Rudetsky, actor and host of comic radio on Sirius Satellite Radio.
Friday and Saturday, the same theater played host to three performances of a one-man show, written and performed by film and Broadway star John Lithgow. The title was ''Stories by Heart.''
Lithgow is simply a brilliant performer.
The man is older than I am, yet he spent two full hours, playing a host of characters, giving each of them distinctive voices and movements which moved him all around the large stage, and keeping the audience riveted on his every word.
The play tells a bit of Lithgow's life. The actor was born in Rochester. His father, Arthur Lithgow, was the founder of a number of Shakespeare Festivals,, in Ohio and in New Jersey. The best known of those was the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival, which still performs a classical season of performances, each year, in Cleveland.
John grew up surrounded by actors and costumers and audience members. Because starting a theater is an uncertain thing at best, his youth was spent, moving from town to town, from school to school, and from home to home, leaving friends behind and needing to make new ones in a hurry.
In the first act of the play in Buffalo, Lithgow told of the time when his parents had become so aged that he had to leave his career and move in with them, putting their affairs in order and arranging for them to be cared for. One thing which was especially helpful in working with them was that he read them bedtime stories from the same book from which his father had once read to him and his siblings. Their favorite story was ''Uncle Fred Flits By,'' by P.G. Wodehouse.
Lithgow then acted out the story, becoming all 10 characters as well as the parrot which plays an important part of the plot. The story is about a young man who has an eccentric uncle, who when caught in a violent rain storm while out for a walk, simply took refuge in a nearby house, interacting and making up stories to justify his being there, with the owners, their servants, and visitors who came during his stay.
Unlike many one-man performances, such as the one we recently reviewed at the Stratford Festival, featuring Christopher Plummer, Lithgow showed an astonishing quality to connect with the audience, not just to perform to us. I suspect every person in the theater felt that they had been invited to interact with the actor, he was happy we were there, and he was talking just to us.
Following intermission, he came out, started the audience on a rhythmic clapping routine, and sang an old folk song about an old housewife who tried to make her husband blind, so she could carry on an affair. It was funny, yet obviously, the subject was horrible.
The song prepared us for his second story: ''Haircut,'' by Ring Lardner. That story has only one character who speaks, a barber named Whitey, in a small town in Michigan.
Whitey cuts the hair of a new resident of the town, while recounting the latest gossip. His stories relate both the warm and kind things which can happen in a small town, and also the miserable cruelty which is endured, from bullies who call themselves ''jokers,'' or ''mischief makers,'' but who are really nothing more than sadistic torturers of other people's self-respect and dignity.
Lithgow has given Whitey an annoying little giggle which punctuates all the ''funny'' stories he tells, and which sometimes seems lighthearted and at other times verges on the fiendish.
The motions of wrapping the customer's face in a hot towel, sharpening the straight razor on a razor strop, and all the other gestures of a shave and a haircut, were perfectly done, to fit the mood of the story and to accurately represent what would happen in such a barber shop.
The evening was an acting tour de force, keeping the large audience riveted and drawing huge ovations. It was an evening to remember.