No one captures the timbre of hometown Philadelphia better than playwright Bruce Graham, and nowhere is that more evident than in People’s Light & Theatre Company’s regional premiere of STELLA AND LOU, his rom-com with a South Philly attitude. While he recognizes all the peculiarities and flaws of his fellow Philadelphians, he also sees the humor and humanity underlying their often unpolished exteriors. With a script that is keenly observant without being mean-spirited, heartwarming without being smarmy, sweet without being saccharine, hilarious at one moment and poignant at the next, Graham, director Pete Pryor, and a terrific three-person cast deliver a funny, honest, and insightful story about finding love right under your nose, even if you’re past your prime and still aching over the past.
Graham’s ear for natural dialogue is heard in his titular characters’ comical banter, used to cover up their deeply felt anxieties about loss, loneliness, and death. Lou (Tom Teti), a grieving widower of two years who runs the declining bar he inherited from his father-in-law, and Stella (Marcia Saunders), the nurse who provided compassionate care for his dying wife, grow closer and more comfortable with each other as they meet and talk on regular nights in his traditional Philly taproom. But she sees that it’s time for a change and prepares to take the necessary steps to make it happen, or at least to try.
Under Pryor’s quick-paced and well-balanced direction, Teti and Saunders turn in mature, finely tempered performances that display equal amounts of wit, internalized pain, and self-revelation. They laugh about the new digital generation they don’t quite understand, make jokes about the one-way tolls to get out of (not into) New Jersey, and reminisce about the good old days (which, for “give ‘em hell Stell,” weren’t really all that good). A nice guy and a generous friend who’s “never been crazy about change,” Lou is desperate to hold onto the lost wife he loved and the past he misses, and afraid to open himself up to new possibilities, even if it means leaving his bar “dingy” and the number of its patrons dwindling, masking his innate big heart with wise cracks, and forgoing his chance for renewed happiness with Stella.
Donnie (Scott Greer), a younger regular at Lou’s, functions as a contrast to his elders and the wisdom that comes with age and experience; he doesn’t yet fully comprehend the need for a loving partner to share his life and to make it worth living. Greer is side-splitting as his character stresses over a lifetime commitment to marriage, gets falling down drunk (literally!) and flawlessly executes other silly sight-gags with a comb and a microwave oven, a suit jacket and a barstool. Though the panicked husband-to-be delivers a less-than-glowing obscenity-filled eulogy to a fellow barfly who walked out on his wife and infant daughter decades ago, he avoids going home to his own fiancée after the funeral, refuses to take her phone calls, and argues with her when he does. While Stella and Lou have a lifetime of sobering lessons under their belts, Donnie is still green in his self-extended youth (and green around the gills from his excessive drinking!), but at last comes to recognize the true love and future he and his girlfriend could share. Will Lou arrive at the same realization about Stella?
A realistically detailed set by James F. Pyne, Jr., complete with a framed Ron Jaworski jersey, glass bricks, and old-fashioned radiator covers, captures the familiar look and feel of a local Philly hang, and an opening background recording of “The Best Is Yet to Come” (sound design by Christopher Colucci) informs the play’s positive message that life goes on, so, for as long as you have left, embrace change and savor it (even if, like Stella, you really don’t like beer).
That’s sound advice that is not limited to any three characters in any one city. STELLA AND LOU is simultaneously personal and universal, entertaining and meaningful, Philadelphia-based but relatable for everyone, everywhere, whether young, middle-aged, or beyond. What is said by Donnie and Stella about Lou applies equally to the sharp-witted and acutely perceptive Bruce Graham: it’s like “he has a Ph.D. in people.” [Steinbright Stage, 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern, PA] July 15-August 23, 2015;; peopleslight.org.