Stella & Lou
Funny, romantic and – in the end – celebratory
|Northlight Theatre presents|
|Stella & Lou|
Review by Catey Sullivan
First and foremost, Northlight Theatre‘s Stella and Lou is a welcome, wholly heart-tugging showpiece for that rarest of onstage combos – a pair of romantic leads who are well into their AARP years. That’s not to say that, as directed by BJ Jones, this expertly cast, engaging tale of two lonely hearts at a turning point won’t resonate for millennials on up. With bone honesty, Rhea Perlman and Francis Guinan turn in performances that transcend demographics in Bruce Graham‘s gently comedic drama. You will relate to these characters, whether you’re 20something of 70something.
The foundation of Stella and Lou‘s appeal isn’t the script, which has a pleasant tidiness more apropos of a romcom television episode than a well made drama. Rather it’s the production itself, which elevates Graham’s well-worn, predictable story to a place of joyous emotional truth. And key to that truth are the achingly authentic performances by Francis Guinan and quadruple-Emmy winner Rhea Perlman.
Guinan plays Lou, the widowed owner of the comfortably run-down neighborhood watering hole where Stella and Lou is set. The pub is the sort of place where regulars can show up every afternoon for 20 years, yet remain so solitary that (contrary to that other bar Perlman famously frequented in the long-running sitcom “Cheers”) nobody knows their name.
Guinan slips into Lou’s skin with seemingly effortless ease, creating a character who is insistently, intentionally resigned to a life of self-imposed loneliness. Although the generosity and compassion Lou feels for the denizens of his bar shines through, he remains carefully cocooned, isolated by walls of his own construction. His default emotional setting is one of resignation and defensiveness as he steadfastly guards against any experience that might leave him in the least bit vulnerable. In Guinan’s marvelously understated depiction, Lou is a subtly wrenching figure, a man ensconced in a comfortable, familiar rut that will keep him immune from both heartbreak and any sort of sustained, meaningful human contact.
Into this world of perpetual twilight and seclusion comes Perlman’s Stella, dressed in a flowery sundress and literally a vision of vibrant light. Stella, a nurse, has come to a crossroads in her life and a desire to take her long-term friendship with Lou to the next level. As Stella gently, insistently chips away at Lou’s formidable defenses, the emotional stakes on stage increase until the audience is almost palpably rooting for Stella and Lou to hook up and live happily ever after. In Stella, Perlman creates a character who is as warm and kind as she is focused and insistent, a vibrant, attractive mature woman who knows what she wants and is willing to take life-affirming risks in order to obtain it.
In addition to Perlman and Guinan, Stella and Lou benefits greatly from Ed Flynn‘s performance as Donny, a soon-to-be-married young man who has reached the point in the wedding preparations when second thoughts and panic attacks are more prevalent than rosy, romantic visions of wedded bliss. Teetering on the edge of emotional melt-down, Donny provides plenty of poignant comic relief and an effective (and often hilarious) parallel to the far more mature but no less ardent romance of his seniors.
In all, Stella and Lou is an engaging if somewhat slight piece of work, elevated to something truly special by the power of its performances. Guinan and Perlman are masters of their craft. Their ability to fully inhabit the lonely hearts of Stella and Lou results in a production that’s funny, romantic and in the end, celebratory.
Stella & Lou continues through June 9th at Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie (map), with performances Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays 2:30pm and 8pm, Sundays 2:30pm. Tickets are $25-$72, and are available by phone (847-673-6300) or online through Tickets.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at Northlight.org. (Running time: 85 minutes, no intermission)
Photos by Michael Brosilow
behind the scenes
BJ Jones (director), Brian Sidney Bembridge (set design), Rachel Laritz (costume design), JR Lederle (lighting design), Andrew Hansen (sound design), Rita Vreeland (stage manager), Michael Brosilow (photos)