Fort Worth — A pretty woman of a certain age (a determined but vulnerable Lisa Fairchild) pauses at the door to Lou’s Bar in South Philadelphia near closing time. She straightens her soft blue summer dress, smoothes her hair, and steps through the door. The proprietor (John S. Davies in tired-but-true-hearted mode) looks up from wiping down the bar and the weariness instantly goes out of his face as he sees her moving toward him. The two 60-something friends smile at each other, and a warmth and sweetness pass between them in that flash of recognition that sets the strong emotional undercurrent for Stella & Lou, Bruce Graham’s 2013 play given its regional premiere at Circle Theatre.
More than a romantic comedy, the play was cheered by Chicago critics in its 2013 premiere at Chicago’s Northlight Theatre for bringing humor and honesty to the forces that pull people together and drive them apart, especially in its realistic depiction of the fears and anxieties of getting old and the possibility of facing death alone. Circle Theatre has produced six Graham plays (including this one) over the past 11 years, and this work displays the award-winning playwright’s gift for depicting ordinary working-class people facing a moral dilemma or showdown, and their flashes of extraordinary insight and comic irony. Graham’s dialogue is naturalistic, often infusing everyday conversation with a surprising eloquence. Here, characters move easily from barstool banter and one-liners to wrenching recollections of a wife’s lingering illness or the sobering revelation of a deathbed promise.
Graham started out as a stand-up comedian, and his characters have the bravery of the performer who can pause only for a moment after landing one joke, knowing he’s got to deliver the next. From Moonlight Over the Brewery, about a lonely little girl and her imaginary friend, to Coyote on a Fence, about a gagster on execution row, Graham’s plays are about the courage needed to take the next step forward into an uncertain future. Stella and Lou has a similar, if less dramatic, theme.
In this production, director Robin Armstrong achieves a sure pace for her strong cast, using their knowing laughs and telling anecdotes to build emotional momentum and intimacy between the friends, as they struggle toward the light of a deeper relationship in this quietly moving 90-minute play. Even while you’re laughing at the situation, you’re aware that these troopers are making jokes to keep their courage up.
Nurse Stella, a long-divorced mother of adult children, usually drops by the neighborhood bar (a serviceable set designed by Clare Floyd DeVries with dart board and sports pennants on the walls) after her shift on Fridays, more to hang out with the regulars than drink her customary one beer. But tonight Stella’s on a special mission. Just back from visiting her new grandchild in Florida, she’s thinking about getting a condo there herself. She’s seen one too many oldsters die alone in the hospital, and she’s determined to make some changes before it’s too late. She’s just won a prize—tickets for two for dinner and a show in Atlantic City—and she’s pumping her courage to ask Lou, a man she deeply admires and may love, to go along for the ride. Fairchild is a charming, courageous Stella, her lovely face at once reflecting her experienced nurse confidence and womanly vulnerability. In small gestures and sudden rushes of urgent speech, she makes her case for Lou’s heart—and wins the audience with her sturdy optimism.
Lou, a widower of two years still grieving for his wife, is a kind man with a limited repertoire of advice to the lonely: “Jesus or Jack Daniels, whatever gets you through the night,” he says. Lou is especially exhausted tonight because he’s just returned from the bleak funeral of one of his longtime customers, a bitter man whose was funeral attended only by a handful of bar regulars. Davies’ Lou is one of those guys you can’t help cheering for. Graying and handsome, he’s the steady-as-she-goes captain of the bar, willing to listen to one more story. Still, he’s been through the grinder of grief himself—and it shows. When moved by a memory or a plea, Davies’ voice grows husky and wrenches slightly, but he keeps going. Attaboy, Lou.
Donnie (a burly, wisecracking Eric Wilder) is a younger regular given the daunting task of writing a eulogy for the deceased. With a gleam of belligerence in his eye, Wilder’s Donnie provides well-timed comic infusion, and a youthful point of view on the angst of younger lovers beset with Internet match-ups and their own fears about romantic commitment. He’s funniest and most touching in his real terror of his upcoming marriage and the requisite high-priced wedding plans. Still, the funeral has shaken Donnie into a realization of the lonely consequences of lifelong bachelorhood, a state his cynical single buddies recommend.
So what’s gonna happen at closing time? Stella’s shy flirting gradually becomes more direct, as she builds her case for a new direction for herself and Lou, who leans in but fears a full embrace of change. Both actors deliver the goods, giving heart and energy to their appealing characters and never lapsing into sentimentality. Will the life-loving Stella win out? Will the perpetually risk-averse Lou allow himself a glimmer of a richer life? You’ll definitely want to order up a pint at Lou’s bar, and see for yourself. Take someone you like to hold hands with.