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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Stella and Lou
THEATER REVIEW
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2013-05-22

This article shared 3321 times since Wed May 22, 2013
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Playwright: Bruce Graham. At: Northlight Theatre at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 N. Skokie Blvd., Skokie. Tickets: 847-673-6300; www.northlight.org; $25-$72. Runs through: June 9

Riley was dead, to begin with—our play is set on the evening following his funeral. A search of Riley's squalid living quarters revealed many never-sent letters to an estranged daughter, but the sole mourners at his burial were his fellow regulars at Lou's south Philly bar. His buddies might be unsure of their own destinies, but one thing they know is that they don't want to die alone like Riley.

Guys like Riley—old men (and sometimes women) who arrive early and don't leave until closing time—can be found in every bar in every city. In fact, two years-widowed Lou is, himself, a Riley in the making, his days divided between the business inherited from his father-in-law and the shrine to the late Mrs. Lou that his house has become. He doesn't know it—indeed, stubbornly resists the very suggestion—that his salvation lies in Stella, the nurse who comes in nightly after her shift for a chat and a beer, but tonight comes packing an agenda that will determine her future, and maybe his, too.

In this and his other plays, Bruce Graham demonstrates a rare talent for writing older than his own experience. Most playwrights not yet past the midpoint of their earthly existence cannot escape their own perspective—"this is me, looking at my father/mother"—but Graham refuses to traffic in gray-haired teenager stereotypes. If Lou accepts Stella's invitation to a dinner and show in Atlantic City, it will be in pursuit, not of a romantic fling, but the companionship that endures beyond marital imperative and proximal camaraderie. Bartender Donnie may claim ambivalence over his imminent wedding and the vulnerability inherent in that contract, but imagine taking a step in that direction with the full knowledge that whatever happiness it may bring will inevitably lead to further loss.

Rhea Perlman has made a career of playing capable caretakers—when Armageddon comes, this is whom you want supervising the clean-up—and Francis Guinan is likewise renowned for his portrayals of strong-and-silent family retainers. Their rapport glows with the comfortable candor that comes of having outgrown rash impetuosity, and if even at 90 minutes (what with Donnie's fretful interruptions), it takes them a little too long to hit all of Graham's arguments, we still hold out hope for these stalwart comrades to risk one last venture while opportunity still beckons.


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