When life and love have punched you in the heart and left you sprawled on the sidewalk, is it really possible to pick yourself up and expose your tender feelings again to the possibility of new love?
Though it's cloaked in comedy, that's the central question in Northlight Theatre's Stella & Lou. This beautifully-constructed play, in which playwright Bruce Graham tempers his musings on loneliness and courage with quick-witted comedy based on human vanities, is a marvel in itself.
With Rhea Perlman, formerly of the TV show Cheers, bringing out Stella's warmth, wise-cracking and down-to-earth compassion, and Steppenwolf Theater Company veteran Francis Guinan exploring the nuances of Lou's reticence to leave the past behind, it's clear 10 minutes into the show that we're seeing extraordinary performances here.
The play stays emotionally true to the hesitancies these two middle-aged people experience as they gingerly reach out to each other. And the two actors stay achingly honest as they navigate around the rubble of their past relationships and entertain thoughts of making the most of the time they've got left.
Director BJ Jones has fine-tuned the cast, which also includes Ed Flynn in a transparent performance as the amiable bartender Donnie, into pacing that heightens at conflicts and takes all the time it needs in quiet moments--even unspoken moments. In fact, one of the most pivotal moments of the play has no dialogue at all, and Guinan uses only movement and gesture to gets across the anguish of Lou making one of the biggest decisions of his life.
If this all sounds pretty heavy, fear not. Perlman gets most of the comic lines in this script, and she handles them deftly. Sometimes, just being completely honest about things that usually get swept under the rug is refreshingly funny, and she's got that nailed.
The script establishes early on that Stella, a nurse who helped care for Lou's wife as she was dying two years earlier, has become good friends with Lou as she stops in after work three nights a week at his bar. They like and admire each other, and on this night, the play hints--through gestures as small as Stella applying lipstick before she walks into Lou's Bar--she's up to something more.
Graham uses foreshadowing poetically here. From Stella saying her little granddaughter is lonely because there are no kids near her age nearby, to Donnie's lover's spat with his fiancee, to Donnie's near-disgust that a longtime bar patron chose to disown his wife and daughter for the anonymity of alcoholism, the script gently but effectively illuminates the voids in the lives of both Stella and Lou.
This all spins out against the backdrop of Brian Sidney Bembridge's set and JR Lederle's lighting, which perfectly conjure a neighborhood bar that has seen spiffier days.
Graham's lovely play stands on its own strengths. But to have Perlman and Guinan plumb the possibilities of these characters, and Jones bring out the finishing touches-- all these things make for a wonderful night of theater. Stella and Lou, the characters, may have some mileage on them, but they're willing, in fits and starts, to continue on. I'm betting Stella & Lou, the play, will go the distance.
IF YOU GO
Stella & Lou runs through June 9 at Northlight Theatre in the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie. Ticket and show information can be found here.