Saturday, May 18, 2013

Stellar Observations, Strong Performances Make 'Stella & Lou' Rather Likable -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Stella & Lou
a play by Bruce Graham
directed by BJ Jones
Northlight Theatre, Skokie
Thru June 9

There have been few television characters more caustically nasty--in a wonderful way--than Carla Tortelli of Cheers, played for all 11 seasons by Rhea Perlman, who won four Emmys for doing so.

In Bruce Graham's new play, Stella & Lou, which is world premiering at Skokie's Northlight Theatre, Perlman again spends her time in a bar and at times approaches being caustic, but as Stella--a long-divorced Philadelphia nurse who seeks a romance with bar owner Lou (played by Francis Guinan)--she is far from nasty.

Yet still quite wonderful.

As is the always outstanding Guinan, a Steppenwolf ensemble member I've seen in several shows.

Together, these two fine actors--along with a third, Ed Flynn, of the Gift Theatre Company--make a play that doesn't offer much in the way of surprise nonetheless eminently entertaining.

Especially as the 85-minute drama, with a good bit of comedy and romance, proceeds in directions one might readily guess, I won't reveal too much of the storyline.

Essentially it is a play about its title characters, with Flynn's Donnie having a bit of narrative of his own but largely serving to break up the dialogue between Stella and Lou.

Lou's is an old-time Philadelphia bar that its owner seemingly runs by himself primarily for loyal, serious-drinking patrons, of which Donnie is one even if several years younger than the norm.

Which is somewhat how I felt catching this show at a Wednesday matinee, where I believe I was the youngest audience member by at least 20 years.

But having loved Graham's previous play at Northlight, The Outgoing Tide--which was the best play I saw in 2011--and being able to avail myself of a $20 day-of-show discount ticket, I was happy to be among a mature audience, especially given the subject matter of Stella & Lou.

The Outgoing Tide, which starred John Mahoney and Rondi Reed, premiered at Northlight and went on to play at the Galway Arts Festival last summer in Ireland. There, Perlman caught it thanks to Mahoney, who had done a guest spot on Cheers before playing Martin Crane on Frasier (a Cheers spinoff).

As revealed in this Tribune interview with Perlman and in the program for Stella & Lou, although Rhea had met Northlight artistic director and Outgoing Tide/Stella & Lou director BJ Jones after the performance in Ireland, it was through another Cheers castmate--George Wendt--that she was eventually cast as Stella.

Wendt was supposed to star in The Odd Couple at Northlight last fall, but had to drop out during rehearsals due to heart issues.

Jones had commissioned Graham to write Stella & Lou for Northlight after the success of The Outgoing Tide, and had mentioned to Wendt that he could envision Perlman in the role. Wendt told Perlman and faster than she could insult Diane, Rebecca or Cliff--OK, not quite--here she is.

Though it does not have the same heft or gravitas as The Outgoing Tide, a drama that revolves around Alzheimer's disease, Stella & Lou works not only because of the work of Perlman, Guinan and Flynn, but because in depicting a late-in-life romance, Graham's script is plenty smart, even if not exceedingly novel.

I imagine many in the audience could likely relate to issues of carrying on after losing a spouse, appreciating companionship, resisting commitment and contemplating moving to Florida.

And perhaps more pertinent to the young whippersnappers in the crowd--well, me, I guess, at 44--through Stella, Graham makes some savvy observations about Facebook, texting and the digital age that largely parallel my thoughts on how face-to-face communication is being corrupted.

So while Stella & Lou isn't quite The Outgoing Tide, or even a particularly terrific episode of Cheers, it offers a lot to like.

And particularly for just $20, but even a good bit more, its title characters and the wonderful actors who play them, prove to be a couple worth getting to know.

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