By Bruce Graham
Directed by BJ Jones
Starring Rhea Perlman, Francis Guinan and Ed Flynn
Produced by Northlight Theatre
Playing at North Shore Center for Performing Arts
The first word that comes to mind is “precious.” Take that as you will.
Playwright Bruce Graham and director BJ Jones—who two years ago collaborated on Northlight Theatre’s successful production of The Outgoing Tide—have once more come together to bring us the world premiere of Graham’s new play, Stella & Lou, which again tackles issues of aging, loneliness and loss. And sure, Stella & Lou may exert all the stirring impact of a strong cup of Earl Grey, but it’s not as if its trying to move mountains either. Stella & Lou is a small story about modest people, set within the tiny walls of an old Philly bar. And while it never approaches the level of revelatory, Stella & Lou at least manages to be insightful.
Lou (played by the inestimable Francis Guinan), who owns a dingy neighborhood bar in Philadelphia, is still reeling from the loss of his longtime patron, Reilly, when his old friend Stella (Rhea Perlman, of Cheers fame) strolls into the bar one night. Stella’s been spending her winters in Florida, and though she’s not much of a fan of the Sunshine State’s muggy summers, she’s decided it may finally be time to buy a condo down there full-time. Then again, maybe not.
For as obvious as it is to us that there’s something on Stella’s mind—something she needs to get off her chest—its never quite so obvious to Lou who’s just as willing to spend their time together counting out the cash drawer and sweeping up the floors. He’s taking Reilly’s death awfully hard, and that’s to be expected. Lou’s bar is the kind of place where the same old faces sit on the same old stools seven nights a week, drowning their proverbial sorrows into countless mugs of beer, their wives perhaps at home watching television alone. But Reilly didn’t have anybody, and when he died while playing a game of baseball, there were only his drinking buddies left to mourn him.
Lou, who’s been himself recently widowed, sees in Reilly’s lonely fate something alarmingly prescient of his own, a fact which he’s accepted with all the stoic reluctance one might expect from a Philly Irishman. Perhaps his disaffections with modern technology (he blames computers for there being “no human contact anymore”) and his lack of concern for his own health (whatever you do, don’t bring up prostate exams!) indicate that Lou is slowly giving up on life. That’s maybe also why he’s so invested in the happiness of his younger buddy Donnie (Ed Flynn) who’s also taking Reilly’s death to heart. Not wanting to see Donnie give up on himself, Lou urges him to move forward—to make up with his fiancée and to finally settle down with her. He urges Donnie not to shy away from love, even if it does seemingly lead to inevitable loss.
When Stella & Lou works, there’s a kind of artless ease about the whole thing. Stella and Lou themselves rarely say more than they mean or mean more than they say, and their conversations sound like something I might convincingly hear at my house on Christmas Eve. Eschewing the lyrical and the “writerly” altogether, the good news is Graham’s succeeded in capturing many of the ebbs, flows and tenor of real conversation. The bad news is that Graham has succeeded in capturing many of the ebbs, flows and tenor of real conversation.
The problem is that Stella & Lou’s emotional range is so consciously constrained—even muted—that it hardly registers at all. Its incessantly pleasant chit chat is laden with all the niceties of a Smucker’s jam commercial, and Stella & Lou doesn’t so much climax as it has an outburst, ultimately landing with all the emotional urgency of a conversation you might overhear on the bus. There’s a lot of rehashing of old memories. A lot of being ornery about the changing landscape of the modern world, which apparently hasn’t crept into Lou’s bar in quite some time (a paltry disco ball, for example, still droops overhead). And a lot of reticently skirting the issue. Assuming there really is one.
Not even actor Francis Guinan—who steps into Lou’s 20-year-old suit like it were a second skin—manages to make a really compelling case for Stella & Lou. Perlman, for her part, plays it best when keeping it casual and clearly relishes those moments when she gets to say something outrageous, but her energies dissipate when things finally get serious or tense between Stella and Lou, thus leaving Guinan to carry a lot of the play’s heavier emotional weight.
So in the end I guess I can’t necessarily fault Stella & Lou for being what it is: honestly realized (thanks largely in part to BJ Jone’s patient direction) and faithfully observed. Still, one will have to excuse me if, in the future, I prefer to take little nip with my Earl Grey.
Reviewed by Anthony J. Mangini
Reviewed Friday, May 10th, 2013.
Running time is approximately 1 hour and 20 minutes with no intermission.
Stella & Lou runs until June 9th, 2013. North Shore Center for the Performing Arts is located at 9501 Skokie Boulevard in Skokie. For tickets call (847) 673-6300 or visit www.northlight.org. Check out their Theater in Chicago listing at https://www.theatreinchicago.com/stella-and-lou/5560/.