Being the kind of tavern where the sunlight generally is about as welcome as a penniless A.J. Pierzynski, Lou's bar in South Philadelphia is expected to light up when Rhea Perlman walks into the joint in a summer dress.
And, at the Northlight Theatre in Skokie on Friday night, light up it did.
There is something about Perlman — who is playing Stella opposite Francis Guinan's Lou in the new, single-set Bruce Graham play "Stella and Lou" — that perks up a place, be it a bar or theater. It's partly that she's so familiar from those 11 years playing Carla on "Cheers," of course, a resonance that's acute given the taproom setting of this play (although Graham is not so much evoking a place where everybody knows your name as a place where everybody will nod at you remotely as you drink yourself under the same table for 20 years). But it's mainly her signature mix of sass and sincerity, a very present cocktail of warmth, charm and just a hint of neediness. Perlman, one feels, has been through the odd wringer but remains ever-ready to give it a go in life, which is exactly the quality needed for a character who is doing precisely that. Stella has arrived at the point in life where, if one is gonna make a change, one had better start making it.
In "Stella and Lou," nurse Stella has decided that her twilight years will be dominated either by a state or the widower she thinks she just might just love: Florida, where they eat at 4:30 p.m., or Lou, who has yet to fully deal with the long-ago death of his beloved wife. And for about 85 minutes in the theater, the dominant question is whether Lou or 55-and-over condos will triumph — which is mostly a matter of whether Lou, who puts about 100 miles a year on his car, will emerge from the darkness and blink at the light, i.e. Perlman's Stella.
That should be enough to signal that "Stella and Lou" is not some font of formative dramatic experimentation. Everything about it has its formulaic aspects: the lonely hearts, the barroom setting, the symbols of daylight and darkness, the surrogate son. But then, our lives also have their formulaic aspects — don't they ever? — and all of this is done honestly. To some degree, "Stella and Lou" is a play about late-in-life loneliness (and depression), themes that are not often explored in the theater, for all of their ubiquity. And there is something refreshing about a commercial new play that would have no Broadway appeal whatsoever for some movie star with a big agent. This is a quiet piece. I found myself wishing it had more of the bleak tartness, say, of the movie "Amour," and a little less of the sitcom pat-ness, but, hey, not everyone wants to stare into the abyss. Especially not when Perlman is around to perk up your later years.
"Stella and Lou" is very much a senior-friendly play. Before anyone gets offended, let me clarify what I mean: This is a play that very much privileges the worldview of those with experience. The third character in these proceedings, Donnie (Ed Flynn, earnest but not perfectly cast), is there mostly to offer a youthful perspective on an impending marriage: his own, of which he is terrified. This allows Stella and Lou to tut-tut a little from the vantage points of having been there, done that (with varying results). Moreover, the piece is generally peppered with wry comments about the encroachments of new technology: Lou tut-tuts some more at the kids who come into his bar asking if he's wireless. And there is much ado about the pleasures of not changing things very much at all.
At times, it feels like Graham's play could use a few more gags. I found myself writing in my notes "is it funny enough?" before crossing that line out as the play went down one of its interesting roads, which is how we often live our lives, at the table next to people we really don't know at all. There also is some very wise stuff here on how resentments for parental inadequacies can eat away (at parent and child) all the way until death, and also, more unusually, how late-in-life romances often involve people who have known a former spouse, which complicates everything. A little later, however, I wrote the line again.
That need for some sharper comic business doesn't mean that B.J. Jones' warm-centered production, which does not yet range deeply enough, could not probe the darker reaches of lives lived in the shadow of loss. Guinan is thoroughly believable as Lou, a character this fine Chicago actor turns into such a likable, genial soul, you want to step up from your seat and down a domestic or two in Brian Sidney Bembridge's well-stocked on-stage tavern. As Lou reaches what might just be the point of no return, the moment when that summer dress might sink for good in a sea of popcorn and suds, you can see his hands shake and the blood rush to his face. It is the beginning of a potentially devastating moment, mostly because it feels so very familiar.
When: Through June 9
Where: North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Tickets: $25-$54 at 847-673-6300 or northlight.org