All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Rather than aim for the gourmet, with fancy ingredients and a self-consciously splashy array of spices, Graham makes do with the simple and basic that satisfies and nourishes more truly and more thoroughly because it’s honest, recognizable, and designed for warmth and contentment rather than dazzle.
Do not mistake. Graham may not indulge in flash, and certainly not in flash for flash’s sake, but his theme is as big and grand as in any opera. “Stella and Lou” is about love, companionship, loneliness, and making a life for yourself when death of a spouse or others vestiges of age interrupt the mostly smooth, fairly predictable course of which you’ve traveled.
At People’s Light & Theatre Company, “Stella and Lou” plays like a poem. It is sweet and soft and works its way into your affection. In addition to the play being sturdy and humorous in the Graham style, it is played to perfection by two of the area’s finest actors, Tom Teti and Marcia Saunders, who play together like clockwork.
Adding comic relief is Scott Greer as young man of limited insight who, newly engaged, is learning the benefits, and liabilities, of love and relationship that Stella and Lou know so well.
“Stella and Lou” is better than a work of art. It engages you completely and brings you into the small world of two ordinary people whose issues, problems, and joys you’re avidly attuned to hear.
You have a good idea about how “Stella and Lou” will turn out once Saunders’s Stella puts her cards on the table and tells Lou she, a South Philadelphians since birth, is interested in having someone closer than Florida to love, have as company, and care for. Graham would be rat shunned by other sewer dwellers if he did not make Stella’s dreams yield some promise. Predictability doesn’t matter. Go back the comfort food image. You know what’s in your grandmother’s meat balls or brasciole. You eat it every week and gladly. With “Stella and Lou,” you savor the familiar recipe and the lovingly skillful way Graham concocts it.
Graham is so prolific, his skein of plays appeal to different people in different ways. Philadelphia theatergoers have seen the gamut of Graham’s work. If you took a poll, everyone would have a different favorite or like one or the other for a variety of reasons. (My favorites are “Coyote on a Fence” and “Minor Demons” while I retain a sentimental spot in my cranky critic’s heart for “Burkie,” Graham’s first play, and the one that facilitated our first meeting.) Graham’s subject matter can be all over the map, from a bleak prison to the executive offices of Disneyland, but the consistencies of his work are what make it endearing.
All of those consistencies are found in “Stella and Lou.”
First and foremost comes the ear for dialogue. Graham is keenly aware of how people speak in day-to-day life, and that’s how he has his characters talk. Neither Stella nor Lou go into flights of verbal fancy. They are too plain and too plain-spoken for that. On a Graham stage, you find a passel of Harry Trumans, all saying what they mean and doing it in an honest way that may, at time, hurt and offend, but doesn’t mean to. The point is to get what you’re thinking or feeling out of your system and to express it sincerely in the wide, wide world. Graham characters are real to the core. Even the snakes of “Belmont Avenue Social Club” speak their minds clearly. Some of them may be creeps and worms, but they exist in the world, and Graham denotes them accurately.
Then, there’s observation. Graham characters converse. Exposition doesn’t come in flat declarations. It comes in the course of one person talking candidly and animatedly to another. Within these conversations, you hear Graham planting the absurdities, inconsistencies, and head-scratching wonders people can’t help but think about, such as how you can have authentic fake snow, in his character’s dialogue.
Graham’s overall oeuvre is running commentary on the 30 years he’s been writing plays because his characters often speak of the crazy things that go on and muse out loud about events or attitudes that are incongruous, living paradoxes and oxymorons that plagues the logic on which one would like the world to be based.
Teti’s Lou, a bar owner who hears all the mishigoss his regulars, especially Greer’s Donnie, can spout, expresses particular awe at the way some people think and behave. Saunders’s Stella, a nurse, also sees the crazy ways people respond to being in or visiting a hospital.
Graham doesn’t keep the inanities and weirdness he notices to himself. He has his characters point it out, and the way they ask or talk about what has probably crossed other people’s minds brings them nearer to the audience, more part of the everyday world.
His latest lead characters, Stella and Lou, can’t help but touch the audience. They are, in South Philly parlance, good people. People who go about their business, don’t hurt anyone, keep a clean house, work hard, probably for little return, and have some fun taking day trips to Atlantic City and find some company stopping into neighborhood places like Lou’s for a shot, a beer, and some chat before they head home to more normality.
Stella and Lou are now in the 60s. Each is working, but both have gone through the passages of life. They have been married. Lou is a widower. Stella had a divorce. They’ve had children. They supported themselves and their families. They don’t ask. They don’t take. They instinctively have you back when you need them. Salt-of-the-earths types Graham likes elevating into subjects for drama.
Graham gives Stella and Lou a lot to talk about. Not only Stella’s idea that she and Lou are both lonely and that she could put off moving to Florida to be closer to her grandchildren, and he can put some end to what is now two or more years of mourning, but the ways in which each shows though flawed here and there, Stella and Lou are decent human beings who have earned attention and happiness.
Neither preaches or whines. They speak in good, honest fellowship as old friends. Stella comes into Lou’s every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to sip a beer and shoot the breeze following her ER shift. When “Stella and Lou” opens, it’s late on a Friday, and Lou is looking down the South Philadelphia street for traces of Stella, who hasn’t arrived yet for her nightcap. Stella was also the nurse who attended Lou’s wife, Lucille, when she was going through her final stages of terminal cancer. She and Lucille bonded. Lou would find them talking like girlhood friends when he’d visit Lucille’s bedside, and it gave him a warm spot for Stella. (Lou’s wife is Lucille, and Donnie’s fiancée is Donna. Is Graham pairing characters based on the first syllables of their names?)
In short, “Stella and Lou” shows you a respectful, treasured friendship turning into a likely romance.
Watching this happen is charming. Especially since Graham does stint in putting obstacles and excuses in Stella and Lou’s way. Lou has a lot of emotional roadblocks and personal objections to maunder before he can embark on a relationship. Stella is, meanwhile, so resistant to the prospect of living in Florida, she has to take a risk before her daughter’s pleadings to come South become her inevitable fate.
Nothing Stella or Lou, or for that matter, Donnie, says is intrinsically dramatic. The arguments and points they makes are standard considerations for the unattached elderly. Graham finds his theater, his drama, in the sum of the parts. Drama comes because Stella has placed two characters at a crossroads. While their ultimate decision is easily divined, the road to it has genuine bumps and curves, timed exquisitely so a new concern is introduced just as the last one is about to wear out its welcome.
Donnie’s dilemma with Donna and her family, with whom he lives, and Lou’s leaving the bar to attend to other business provide breaks that give Graham’s plot time to ferment and the audience some seconds to take a stance and, frankly, root fervently for Stella to prevail.
Graham has built a nice running gag into the scenes when Lou leaves the bar. He has Stella go behind the bar to spill out the contents of the beers to which Lou has been treating her. At first you think it’s her way of delaying her leaving. Any time Lou sees an empty glass, he fills it. When you learn what’s really on Stella’s mind, something predicated on her hating and never having drunk beer before she started frequenting Lou’s, you are delighted and have another one of those warm moments “Stella and Lou” provides so generously.
Tom Teti and Marcia Saunders are mutually superb in their respective roles. Teti shows the worldweariness of the bartender who can recite his customers’ gripes and jokes like a litany. Teti’s Lou takes a interest in his regulars. He pays for the funeral of one and takes on the responsibility of trying to teach Donnie some of the more serious sides of life.
Teti also conveys Lou’s sadness. There’s a slowness and habitual nature to his routine, even as he washes and wipes down glasses. Something is missing in Lou’s life. You know that even before Stella makes her entrance.
Teti is straightforward as Lou. He never pulls a punch. He may hesitate out of a desire to spare feelings, especially Stella’s, but he always musters the sincerity to explain exactly what he wants and what he’s feeling.
As Stella, Saunders is as natural and as congenial as a person can be. She is ready for light conversation, as well as taking in some of those observations Graham likes to include in his dialogue.
There’s something reliable and solid about Stella. She is not a sentimental fool. She has obviously thought hard about talking to Lou about a relationship. This is a woman who has evaluated her life and realized what will make her happy and the options open to her if she had to choose one or another route to an existence that would not be contenting or complete.
Stella is ready to gamble, and not just in Atlantic City. She is late because she had gone home after leaving the hospital to put on make-up and a nice dress. She keeps things on a even, friendly footing, but you can sense tinges of nervousness in Saunders’s voice and see her thinking about the best time to ask Lou to accompany her to a show for which she has won tickets.
Saunders is particularly great as seeming nonchalant while letting the audience know something is on Stella’s mind, something she has to deal with if she’s going to have any peace.
Saunders’s affability as Stella keeps Pete Pryor’s production going smoothly. She brings up the subjects that cause dramatic conflict, she sneaks around the bar to pour out her beer, and she keeps things on the most conversational footing she can.
Best of all, you believe Saunders’s Stella would be a neighborhood woman who would stop into a place to get a beer and see some people who were not in pain before she headed home. Stella could be anybody’s neighbor. She doesn’t sparkle, or even try to, but she is amiable and makes for good company. What she has to say is not earth-shaking, but it is diverting enough, and Stella, in a quiet way, stands for a lot of people who are lonely but aren’t willing to take the chance Stella is hazarding with Lou.
Once the romance starts brewing in “Stella and Lou,” you, like Stella, want to see less of Donnie, whose troubles are those of a young man experiencing his first important relationship. Donnie contrasts Stella and Lou by being at the beginning of his life and by being more confused in general than the older characters are.
Greer, like Teti and Saunders, is authentic as Donnie. Graham has given Donnie most of the outright jokes and punch lines, and Greer tosses them off with a naturalness that entertains and adds to you feeling something for Donnie and the petty dilemmas that loom so large for this naïve man.
Praising precision, perfection, and clockwork would be impossible if it wasn’t for the seamless work by director Pete Pryor, who presents “Stella and Lou” are a pure slice-of-life. Even Greer’s Donnie, who has more shtick to play than Teti or Saunders, remains credible and within the fabric of Graham’s play. Pryor and his cast create instant authenticity which makes the play even more immediate because we see Stella and Lpu as genuine humans who need to work things out rather than as types or characters who are just waiting their turn to make the next piercing observation.
Pryor and his cast have it so you understand all that Lou is saying about widowhood, solitude, and responsibility but still feel crestfallen when it looks as if Stella is going to be disappointed in all of her hopes.
You see James F. Pyne, Jr.’s set and you get set to place your order. From a blinking TV screen to the dart board stage left, Lou’s looks like a comfortable, lived-in joint where regulars congregate and a stranger would be welcome (if talked about). The dress Bridget Brennan chooses for Stella is just right. It is not too fancy. It’s a sensible department store garment you can wear for several kinds of occasion, from mildly dressy to near formal.
“Stella and Lou” runs through Sunday, August 23, at People’s Light & Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Road (On Route 401 just north of Route 30), in Malvern, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets range from $77 to $27 and can be obtained by calling 610-644-3500 or by visiting www.peopleslight.org.