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Chicago by John Olson

Stella and Lou
Northlight Theatre


Ed Flynn, Francis Guinan and Rhea Perlman
Two years ago, Northlight Theatre scored a big hit with their world premiere of Bruce Graham's The Outgoing Tide, a powerful three-person drama about a man dealing with the onset of Alzheimer's that later enjoyed a production Off-Broadway. Graham is back at Northlight with another three-hander about an aspect of aging, but despite the parallels to The Outgoing Tide, it's a different sort of piece.

A one act, 80-minute comedy-drama set in a neighborhood bar in Philadelphia, Stella and Lou concerns the bar's sixty-something widower owner Lou (Steppenwolf's Francis Guinan); regular Stella (Rhea Perlman), a 65-year-old divorcee; and Donnie (Ed Flynn), a thirtyish regular customer engaged to be married. Graham's subject here is the need and the challenges of marriage or coupling at advanced ages—or any age, really. Lou is still grieving the death of his wife two years earlier and has retreated from any significant social interaction outside the bar; Stella is considering a move to Florida, and Donnie is conflicted about going forward with his wedding to the fiancée he finds demanding and controlling. The twin crises of the play are whether Donnie will marry his intended and if Lou will agree to the date on which Stella invites Lou halfway through the play.

Stella and Lou seem to have been each other's best friends since Lou's wife died, but neither has taken the risk to raise the friendship to another level until this night. Stella has received a gift certificate to a nice restaurant in Atlantic City and invites Lou to join her. Lou is reluctant to risk any sort of relationship and the possibility of having to bury another wife, but Stella is eager to make a change in her life and informs Lou she'll move to Florida if he doesn't accept this invitation. The choices Lou and Donnie are forced to make—to couple or not to couple—are informed by the life and recent death of another regular at the bar, who died without a wife or any friends save the other regulars at the bar.

Graham makes his case for the need for companionship convincingly and gives us three fully believable and engaging characters. Guinan, a master of naturalistic acting and creating warm, relatable everymen, is as good as ever here. He succeeds at the difficult task of building a fully fleshed-out character of a man who chooses not to put himself out there in any respect. Perlman does fine work as well, but she's saddled a bit with the baggage of her 11-year stint as Carla Tortelli on TV's Cheers, again playing a single mom of a certain age in the setting of a neighborhood bar in an East Coast city. Though Stella has a perceptive eye when it comes to people and a quick wit, she has nowhere near the sharp tongue of Carla. Perlman seems to fear comparisons to her earlier role and keeps Stella rather toned down in the first half of the play. Her character is likable, but a bit bland until the stakes rise for her when she asks Lou on the date and makes it clear she'll leave town (and leave Lou without his last best friend) unless he agrees. Here, Ms. Perlman delivers all of Stella's emotions quite movingly—her determination, loneliness, and heartbreak at the prospect of losing Lou—and ultimately her strength in following through on a hard choice.

Graham may need to give Stella some more texture in the earlier moments of the play to give the actress in the role something to play. As it is now, the 80-minute play takes a long time to get going. Graham, director B. J. Jones and cast do fine work in showing us these decent and very human characters, but until the crisis of Stella's invitation is introduced, nothing very engrossing or dramatic happens. Up until the midpoint of the play, the most interesting character is Donnie, with much credit due to the performance by Ed Flynn. Donnie is an out-of-shape working class guy with bad facial hair who's really afraid to forgo his independence, even to the fiancée he describes as extremely "hot." He's rough around the edges and likable if immature. Flynn plays Donnie without condescension, and as similar as this character is to people we see in films like The Hangover movies, Flynn makes this one a real person.

With this collection of sensitive performances and with the help of a perfectly detailed set by Brian Sidney Bembridge, Jones and Graham give us a warm, funny and realistic exploration of an important theme. For the first 30-40 minutes, though, it's almost too naturalistic and we start to wonder where it's going. With a lack of tension around the title characters until the halfway point, the play feels a little thin even as it leaves us with some resonant messages about coupling vs. independence at various stages of adult life. While Graham's The Outgoing Tide felt ready for a wider audience after its premiere at Northlight, Stella and Lou might benefit from a little more work, but it has the potential to be a commercial and critical hit in future productions.

Stella and Lou will play the Northlight Theatre, at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Boulevard., Skokie, IL through June 9, 2013. For ticket information, visit www.northlight.org, call 847-673-6300 or visit the box office.


Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson



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