by Clark Groome
In one of those strange historical coincidences, Ian Lithgow was born Feb. 3, 1972, the 13th anniversary of the day Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson were killed in a plane crash and the time when Don McLean’s “American Pie” was atop the music charts. That song was the source of the description of the Holly disaster as being “The day the music died.”
While Lithgow, 40, is an actor, not a singer, he has always found the coincidence appropriate for a man who grew up to be a performer.
In another coincidence that he calls “happenstance,” it’s likely he wouldn’t be performing now if his wife, Rachel, hadn’t gotten a job a year ago as the executive director of the Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation.
After some investigation, Ian and Rachel and their two young children settled in Chestnut Hill because “we just loved the neighborhood. It seemed like a great place to raise our kids.”
Before he moved to Philadelphia, he had spent the previous seven years studying and practicing clinical psychology and was a licensed clinical psychotherapist in New York.
But we’re getting ahead of the story. Growing up in New York City at a time when his father, the distinguished stage, film and TV actor John Lithgow, was working primarily in theater, Ian was accepted at Harvard University.
“When I applied to Harvard,” he said in a recent interview at a Chestnut Hill coffee house, “I didn’t have much of an idea what I wanted to do. The summer before I went there, I was an apprentice at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.
“I got to take voice and movement classes. Part of my job was to help out with set construction, painting, all that. It was hard work but a lot of fun. I felt completely in my element. By the time I started Harvard in the fall, I was feeling a lot of ambivalence about being there because I pretty much knew at that point what it was I enjoyed.”
He stuck it out, however, and discovered that “Harvard ended up being a good place to do theater because there’s so much activity there. I took classes in theater, even though you can’t major in theater; did a lot of performing; read a ton of plays; [and] somewhere found time to fulfill my English major,” earning his bachelor’s degree in 1994.
During his time at Harvard, he also connected with the Cambridge-based American Repertory Theatre (ART), one of the nation’s most respected professional regional theaters.
After college Lithgow worked at a lot of theaters, including ART, Connecticut’s Stamford Theatre Works, Los Angeles’ Ahmanson Theatre (with director Sir Peter Hall), Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, the Pasadena Playhouse and the Manhattan Theatre Club and had a recurring role on NBC’s “Third Rock from the Sun,” the TV sitcom that starred his father.
Between Harvard and Philadelphia, Lithgow’s career path changed. Always interested in psychology, he began graduate work at Antioch University in Los Angeles in 2003. He earned an MA in clinical psychology, specializing in marriage and family therapy two years later. After moving to New York with his wife and young daughter, he was licensed there as a clinical psychotherapist.
When his wife’s career brought them to Philadelphia and Chestnut Hill, he returned to acting. Not being licensed to practice psychotherapy in Pennsylvania, he looked for work on stage.
A third generation theater artist — his grandfather, Arthur Lithgow, was the founder of the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival and later served as the artistic director of Princeton’s famed McCarter Theatre — Lithgow says, “I never expected to live in Philadelphia but actually have roots here because my mother grew up in Ardmore.
“I grew up around the performing arts and spent a lot of time around rehearsal halls and backstage in my formative years. My father was still living in New York, doing theater almost exclusively.”
In those days, he says, New York was the best place to be as a stage actor. “Now it seems Philly is the place to be if you want to become a stage actor because New York is so expensive.”
After a role at the Montgomery Theater last summer, he attended the Delaware Theatre Company’s required open Equity auditions. He caught the eye of executive director Bud Martin (who until June served in that capacity at Ambler’s Act II Playhouse) and was ultimately cast as the son in its production of local playwright Bruce Graham’s acclaimed “The Outgoing Tide,” which, after ending its run in Wilmington Oct. 28, will move to New York’s 59E59 Theaters for six weeks
The best part of being an actor is not the applause, he says. “The applause is nice, but that can be a trap; you’re always looking for it. My favorite part is the moment when you’re looking at a scene and something suddenly makes sense. You make a connection you hadn’t made before. It’s an ‘ah ha’ moment, [revealing to you] how that [scene] might work. That’s the most fun part: the ‘ah ha’ moment.”
Ian’s current role is an example of the kind of parts to which he’s drawn. “There’s a compelling evolution of the character, Jack,” he says. “Really it’s about growing up. It’s a guy who’s in a situation he didn’t ask to be put in.
“Jack has a strained relationship with his parents. He’s staying with them for a few days but really doesn’t want to be there.” His character’s father is struggling with dementia, and Jack doesn’t really want to get involved. “He finds the courage to get involved and to take a stand. He grows up.”
While he doesn’t rule out the possibility of getting his psychotherapist’s license in Pennsylvania at some point, at the moment “I feel like I’ve gotten a second lease as an actor being in Philly.
“I’m hoping I can contribute. So far it seems to be a very supportive group of artists here. It’s a small enough pond that out of necessity everyone has to get along. There’s no room for jerks.”
As our interview ended, we chatted a bit about Ian’s other interests. He loves music from jazz to rock and plays the clarinet and alto saxophone. Since the baseball playoffs were about to start, I asked him if, as a New Yorker, he was a Yankees or a Mets fan.
“I wouldn’t say I’m a Mets fan. I’d say I’m an anti-Yankees fan.”
Obviously he’ll mesh well with his new acting community!
For tickets to the Delaware Theatre Company’s production of Bruce Graham’s “The Outgoing Tide,” playing through Oct. 28, call 302-594-1100 or visit www.delawaretheatre.org