Lemmon

Chris Lemmon stars in "A Twist of Lemmon," playing Sept. 16-27 at the Apollo Theatre, Peoria.

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

PEORIA — Trust Chris Lemmon on this one: You can go home again, and you can do it as your own father.

If, that is, you don't mind walking a tightrope … blindfolded ... without a net.

“Yes, that's what it's like: being the big-top guy on the tightrope without a safety net,” says Lemmon.

Starting Wednesday night, this high-wire materializes on the intimate stage of downtown Peoria's 120-seat Apollo Theatre for 13 performances over two weeks (through Sept. 27).

The occasion: “A Twist of Lemmon,” a one-man/one-son celebration of a famous actor father, name of Jack Lemmon, inspired by Chris' 2006 memoir of the same name.

It's served up, road-bumps and all, by the look-alike/sound-alike progeny who journeyed from love through estrangement and back to love again over the course of a lifetime.

It was a lifetime lived with one foot in Old Hollywood royalty, where stars like Marilyn Monroe, James Cagney, Shirley MacLaine, Billy Wilder, Gregory Peck and Fred Astaire routinely orbited about him; and one foot in his mother's practical Central Illinois upbringing.

Chris' distillation of that lifetime into an acclaimed theater work is his baby, top to bottom: star, writer, director, producer, composer of the original music, accompanist and, for all we know, stagehand.

Christopher Boyd Lemmon was born in 1954, during Jack's first marriage to Peoria native Cynthia Stone, who had co-starred with her husband in two short-lived '50s TV series, “That Wonderful Guy” and “Heaven for Betsy.”

The wedding between Stone and John Uhler “Jack” Lemmon III took place in Peoria in 1950, where many, if not all, roads seem to eventually lead for their only child.

The couple divorced in 1956, when Chris was only 3, leaving him shuttling between two families (he gained a second Oscar-winning relative when his mother wed, the following year, actor Cliff Robertson).

“Being by yourself on a stage for 90 minutes can get really lonely sometimes,” says Chris, himself an accomplished actor with a resume packing four TV series and 25 movies, including 1989's "Dad," in which he plays Jack Lemmon's character as his younger self.

"This really is the most perilous kind of theater," Chris adds of the challenge in summoning his late father from the grave to live and breathe on a stage, "not through imitating him, but through channeling Jack Lemmon, which is something different."

Even in the casual conversational style adopted for for this interview, Chris' voice could easily be mistaken for the inimitable one that reverberated through some of mid-century Hollywood's high-water marks: "Mister Roberts," "Some Like It Hot," "The Apartment," "Days of Wine and Roses," "The Odd Couple," etc.

When Chris consciously begins to channel his father, the sensation is ... well, unnerving: Jack's back.

"The book grew out of the adoration for my father I felt after he left me (from cancer in 2001 at the age of 76), and I sort of gained some solace, especially after the book tour was so well-received by people," Chris recalls.

The heart of the feedback was the stories people told Chris of how the memoir moved them to reconnect with estranged parents, heal existing wounds and make peace in a meaningful way.

But at the end of the road, as Jack slowly lost his cancer battle, father and son were fully reconnected, and that re-connection is what Chris says is at the heart of "A Twist of Lemmon."

Being the author of a memoir and playing the subject of a play are two different matters, though. "It was sort of a 'duh!' moment when I realized that. I knew that to be Pop I had to become him ... which wasn't too hard since our Lemmons don't fall too far from the tree."

The chief difference between father and son is one of stature, literally: "I've got a few inches on him, so on stage, we elevate the set and props so you can't really tell."

At the end of their day, though, "A Twist of Lemmon" is about the progression of an up-and-down relationship that, happily for all, ends up ... way, way up.

"Jack was fallible as a father and he was fallible a human being, and there were plenty of bumps along our life's way," says Chris. "But we ended up being the best of friends, and he the best of all dads. Right after we reached that, he died and left me. I miss him now, desperately."

After a pause, he adds: "But with this play, he lives again through me ... and I get him back."

The Pantagraph in Bloomington-Normal, Ill., is a Lee Enterprises newspaper.

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