Where: Northlight Theatre, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie
When: through June 9
Northlight Theatre had a winner with Bruce Graham’s “The Outgoing Tide,” directed by Artistic Director BJ Jones and starring Steppenwolf Theatre’s John Mahoney, so it’s no surprise the theater would try to replicate that success by developing the world premiere of the playwright’s “Stella & Lou.”
Like “Tide,” this latest effort is a three-character play about a problem of inherent interest to older people. They happen to be working-class Philadelphians, and the cast includes one of Steppenwolf‘s finest actors, Francis Guinan. But that’s pretty much where the similarities end.
While “Tide” deals with end-of-life issues in a fresh, witty, unsentimental and sometimes profound way, “Stella & Lou” is yet another of the many plays about two lonely middle-aged people trying to put aside their baggage long enough to connect with each other. Lou (Guinan) owns an old-fashioned neighborhood bar and remains devoted to his dead wife, Lucille. Stella (Rhea Perlman, of “Cheers” fame) is an ER nurse who helped care for the poor woman during her long illness, and after her death started coming into the bar a few times a week for a beer and conversation. She has a daughter and grandchild in Florida, and desperate for a change in her life, is contemplating a move there. But what she really wants is Lou. The third character is the younger Donnie (Ed Flynn), who works at the bar and is having second thoughts about marrying his live-in girlfriend, Donna. (Lou and Lucille, Donnie and Donna, really?) He’s on hand for thematic contrast, as he contemplates throwing away the attachment the older folks crave.
The main problem is that “Stella & Lou” takes too long getting to the heart of the matter – Stella willingness to risk rejection by asking Lou to go to a dinner and show, his response and a secret – and doesn’t give us enough reason to care about these lonely hearts as we wait to see what happens. Roughly two-thirds of the piece is chitchat, much of it about two unseen characters (almost always a bad idea!), Donna and Reilly, a really old bar regular whose funeral opens the evening and whose mementos have reverberations for the others. In addition, much of the script sounds like a television sitcom or dramedy, predictable laugh lines and all.
If you don’t mind the overworked topic, “Stella & Lou” provides an opportunity to see Guinan craft another difficult character with his typical skill, and Perlman holds her own with his kinder, slightly less textured counterpart. Flynn is strong, too, as a schlep given to irrational feelings of guilt and outburst of anger. And Brian Sidney Bembridge’s bar set boasts all the requisite bells and whistles.