REVIEW BY FRAN BURD
For Digital First Media
“Stella and Lou,” a new play by Bruce Graham made its debut at People’s light on Friday night and to I loved it. Graham, Philadelphia foremost playwright whose setting is usually local, but whose themes are universal, has done it again with a powerful work full of humor and heartache, poignancy and compassion, and he’s done it in an hour and fifteen minutes!
In the play, two friends, Stella (Marcia Saunders) and Lou (Tom Teti), are among the last folks at Lou’s Bar before he closes it for the night. They are both sixty-something, and both have complex stories that led them to that moment, the most immediate of which, the death of Reilly, a long time patron of the bar. But what makes this an extraordinary play is Graham’s knack for injecting so many jokes, so many laughable situations, with the adroitness for getting into the seriousness of life for these two as well as for Donnie (Scott Greer), the younger man, struggling with whether or not to go ahead with marrying the woman he’s engaged to.
A few years ago, I went to a reading of this play, as Graham was developing the piece. The purpose of a reading is for the playwright to see his work in front of him with an audience beside him. There’s no set and no blocking (movement) — just professional actors standing before you, reading. Perhaps they’ve had a rehearsal or two with the playwright that very afternoon. He also gets feedback from his theater friends — actors, directors, producers. It’s several stages before the writing is complete.
I go to occasional readings when I know the playwright, and I know Bruce. So how can I review a play of a friend, you may ask? My answer is that when I was
researching Tennessee Williams for another project, I discovered that he regularly had contact with the critics from the major New York papers who reviewed his work, and whose opinions could affect the success of his play. It seemed almost incestuous. Well, I’m no New York Times critic, and Graham is not Tennessee Williams (not yet, anyway) but it’s not as complicated to maintain an objective eye as one might think. One more thing — readings don’t stick. To be honest, I don’t remember anything about the reading except that it took place in a bar.
There is one other patron that night, Donnie, who was also at the funeral. In order to deal with his frustration and confusion regarding his upcoming marriage, he drinks his way through the night while stepping outside to talk to his girlfriend on the cell, allowing Stella and Lou to talk in the bar, about her move to Florida, about modern technology, and about life in general. The talk is funny and powerful.
There are other omniscient characters besides Donnie’s girlfriend. Stella talks about an imaginary friend she had growing up. Lou’s response is that he was too poor to have an imaginary friend, and he had five brothers anyway.
Reilly, the deceased, also has a mysterious story that emerges. And just as the painting of the father on the wall in Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” is a silent character, so too is the character of Lou’s wife, a figure who is a roadblock to his moving forward in life.
In spite of it all it’s talk about life at this stage, it’s a comedy and a very funny one. Donnie is hesitant to call off the wedding because he doesn’t want to lose his deposit. Lou keeps reminding Stella about the dangers of Florida — hurricanes and alligators — to keep from losing is friend to the south. He doesn’t even travel to New Jersey because he hates all the tolls in that state across the Delaware River.
It’s hard to believe that such an enjoyable, funny, yet thought-provoking evening, could be packed into 75 minutes, but there’s never a dull moment thanks to the amazing performance by Teti, Saunders, and the riotous Greer. I hadn’t even noticed until I got home and looked at the program that it was directed by Pete Pryor, a master of comedy in the Philadelphia in his own right. “Stella and Lou” is a winner!
IF YOU GO
What: “Stella and Lou”
Where: 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern.
When: Now throuhg Aug. 15
Info.: Check peopleslight.org or call (610) 644-3500.