Watching legendary actor Kirk Douglas spill his guts in his solo stage show, Before I Forget, is like watching a Spartan warrior strip off his armor and prepare for a spot of tea. The 92-year-old legendary actor, known for riding horses, slinging guns, harmonizing with happy-go-lucky ease and casting stony, smoldering stares, moved slowly and struggled with a speech impediment in front of sold-out houses at his namesake theatre in Culver City for just two fleeting weekends in March. To see it was to witness heartbreaking honesty and unabashed, nostalgic sentimentality issuing forth from a man accustomed to hiding his true self behind countless gritty, goofy and powerful roles. The best thing about the show is, perhaps, the fact that Douglas takes on several decidedly unmanly topics, freely admitting to us that even a chiseled movie star with a seemingly innate knack for inhabiting machismo characters can’t escape feelings of loneliness, deep depression, fear and inferiority. With the help of a film screen, vintage film footage, two chairs, and several glasses of water, Douglas lays out a 90-minute tell-all that has surely launched more than a few post-show conversations about rags-to-riches stardom, regret, love, passion, parenting and death. It’s all there and then some as the veteran actor steps with fragile foot around the stage, traversing his entire life from birth to impending death. He talks with equal measures of joy and pain about his poverty-stricken upbringing and his mostly absentee father. Born Issur Danielovitch to illiterate, Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, Douglas longed for approval from his tavern-dwelling, ragman father as a boy, while not always appreciating the tenacious love provided by his mother. It’s somewhat surprising to learn that the famously hunky Hollywood bruiser was brought up alongside six sisters, the lone boy in a female tribe. It’s these little nuggets of revelatory information that drive the show, inspiring in us a sense of urgency to get to know our elders lest our legacies be lost. Douglas takes us to the dark corners of divorce, regretful parenting practices, and debilitating illness. He labors to form words at times, gnashing and gnawing his way through partial facial paralysis, but words never fail him fully and we hang on his every utterance, waiting for the next golden drop of truth to fall from his partly mangled lips. Each grim moment in the show is nicely balanced with ruminations on the nature of love and odes to the immeasurable value of family and friendship. Douglas piles on the praise when talking about his wife of 50 years, and he doesn’t hesitate to skip gleefully down a star-studded memory lane, strewn with stories about Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner and Burt Lancaster. His three living sons are sources of pride and joy for this aging lion, though the little cub that got away still causes him to curl up occasionally, licking wounds inflected by powerlessness. Though he wrestles with feelings of fatherly regret, he also shows a tremendous capacity for compassionate child rearing. There’s no telling what Kirk Douglas will do next, but don’t be surprised if he comes up with something brand new and entirely stirring. Though firmly planted in the twilight of his life, his story imparts as much warmth as the noonday sun.
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