“Stella & Lou” A Journey for Happiness through Loneliness and Change

ct-cth-ott-0510-perlman-jpg-20130509By: Russell Goeltenbolt:

When people fight loneliness they search for solutions and possibly some special person to fill that void. Northlight Theater’s World Premiere production of “Stella & Lou” examines loneliness, and solutions to filling that void. On a quiet night at Lou’s bar, two kindred spirits seek company and comfort as they explore changing times and relationships of the past. This exploration also examines the fear of change, starting life with a new marriage and the uncertainty of commitment.

Stella, (played by Rhea Perlman; Emmy award winning actress, who played former bar waitress Carla on the popular TV show Cheers), is a divorced emergency room nurse, who is a mother, grandmother, but is not fulfilled.   Lou, (Francis Guinan, member of Steppenwolf Theater Ensemble) is a widowed bar owner, who is grieving the loss of his beloved wife, two years after her death.  Stella and Lou’s connection is that Stella was the nurse who cared for Lou’s ailing wife during her final days.  Stella casually returns to Lou’s Bar to see Lou and to bring him out of his grief and to lead him out of his loneliness to a possible relationship with her. Unfortunately, Lou is so faithful to his dead wife’s memory, he wants to remain in his routine and his grief.  The third character in the story is Donnie, (played by Ed Flynn, graduate of Steppenwolf, Second City and Improv Olympics alum), is a bar fly, and is a nice guy who is afraid of finally marrying his fiancé he is currently living with. His fears are masked by the stress of planning an elaborate wedding and getting caught up with the particulars and expense. However, his real fears are from his life permanently changing with marriage.  His safe haven is Lou’s Bar and owner Lou who is a mentor and a special friend.  Then there is Reilly, an 88 year old bar patron who has died, with no family.  Reilly has asked Lou through a note to provide a funeral and for Donnie to conduct a eulogy. Feeling badly that Reilly has no family and few friends, Lou pays for the funeral and Donnie gives an awkward eulogy. Donnie has a hard time understanding that Reilly had abandoned his daughter when she was a baby. After locating the daughter to inform her of Reilly’s passing, Lou locates the daughter. He attempts to give her some saved cards and letters that Lou found in Reilly’s home that were never sent. Reilly’s daughter wants nothing to do with her father’s memory because he abandoned her. This leads all three characters to look at their life, loneliness and what they need to do to change their lives for the better.    

From the author of “The Outgoing Tide”, the 2011 Jeff award winner for best new play, Bruce Graham explores the story of intimate friendships, forgiveness, and companionship with “Stella and Lou”. This story is very compelling and sometimes compassionate and emotional.

“Stella and Lou” is directed by 15 year Northlight Artistic Director BJ Jones, who is a two time Jeff Award winner, and has been nominated multiple times for his direction. BJ Jones’ direction for “Stella and Lou” was excellent. The realism with the characters was clear.

The scenic design by Brian Sidney Brembridge, added to the reality of Lou’s Bar. It was very real and it brought the audience to Lou’s Bar.

The character of Stella by Rhea Perlman was funny compassionate and endearing, and much different then Carla or some of her other characters she has played on stage and screen. Her natural persona brought to the reality of Stella. The character of Lou played by Francis Guinan brought the sympathetic nice guy who had a hard time being happy. Lou is a person you want take under your wing and give a big hug. The character of Donnie, played by Ed Flynn was awkward and neurotic, which is how the play is written. Even though, Ed was successful at playing Donnie’s character, it did not move me. Donnie is neurotic, a drinker, and really out of control with his emotions, which Ed was successful at portraying.  It is interesting to know that the original story of “Stella and Lou” was written with only two characters; Stella and Lou. The character of Donnie was added later. The third character of Donnie is interesting, but it is sometimes confusing.

I will have to say that the entire story of “Stella and Lou” is wonderful. However, the clarity issues with Donnie’s character is troublesome to me. The establishment of Donnie’s character is never really clear in bringing the story together. However, it is evened out with Stella and Lou’s advice and care for him.  I think the addition of Donnie’s fiancé to Donnie’s character would have further established Donnie’s story and character. The very beginning of “Stella and Lou” begins with Donnie giving the eulogy for bar patron Reilly. I had a difficult time with Donnie’s transition to his character and who he is. I felt that the eulogy could have possibly been moved to another scene or possibly just discussed in the dialogue. Even though, Reilly’s death was a contributing factor to the story, it was not the focus. The lack of character with Donnie is more concentrated with the development of Donnie’s character in the book, rather than BJ Jones direction.

“Stella and Lou’s” development is a part of the Northlight Theater’s “Interplay” reading series process.  This is where new works by American and International playwrights are presenting their works by granting the audience a preview of the critical stages of works in progress. The readings for the play are privately held in a rehearsal space, and are viewed by a select audience, by invitation only. Since the spring of 2012, Interplay has staged 24 readings of new plays. Over 20 have gone to full production at the Northlight, Chicago, and throughout the country. Interplay is a valuable tool for new works in the American Theater. The Northlight Theater and Artistic Director BJ Jones are valuable contributors to the American Theater community.

Even though, there are some bumps in the story of “Stella and Lou”, I don’t want to mislead the enjoyment of this story, or the talent of the actors of this production.  There are always ideas and ways to make things better, without discounting the talent or the production itself.

I recommend “Stella and Lou”as a heartwarming journey out of loneliness toward completeness and happiness.

“Stella and Lou” is currently appearing through June 9, 2013 at the Northlight Theater, located at the Northshore Center for the Performing Arts 9501 Skokie Boulevard Skokie, Il 60077. (www.northlight.org) Box Office 847-673-6300.  Performances are Tuesday (except May 21 and June 4), Wednesday and Thursday(except May 29) at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. with a matinee on Wednesdays, (except May 22) Saturdays, and Sundays at 2:30 p.m.  For calendar information visit www.theatreinchicago.com