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5, Sep 2015

Stella and Lou alone in South Philly

by Steve Cohen
The Cultural Critic

Stella and Lou confronts the quandary of aging people who are lonely but afraid to risk the uncertainties of new relationships. Bruce Graham’s tender play is an intimate story about simple people, yet it reaches unexpectedly powerful emotional depths. The locale is an important element, and James F. Pyne Jr’s set magnificently defines it.

We are in a small South Philadelphia taproom. Mementos are everywhere: faded photos, sports memorabilia — Phillies, Flyers and Rocky posters, a Jaworski Eagles jersey, a dartboard.

Lou (played magnificently by Tom Teti) wears a suit that’s 15 years out of style because Lou doesn’t go anywhere, just from the bar to his home and back. This day is an exception. He has just come from the funeral of one of his bar’s regular patrons. Reilly sat in the bar for years because he had no one at home, and he left a note asking Lou to arrange his burial. Lou pays for the funeral, and Donnie (Scott Greer), Lou’s assistant, gives an awkward eulogy. Here and throughout the play he provides numerous laughs.

Chit-chat between Lou and Donnie flows naturally, as playwright Graham has a great ear for the small talk of working-class Philadelphians. Soon Stella arrives (Marcia Saunders), a hospital nurse who met Lou two years ago when she attended to Lou’s dying wife. Now she visits Lou’s bar three nights each week when her shift is over.

Stella pauses before opening the door, pulls out a compact and does a quick check of her hair and makeup. She puts away the compact, takes a deep breath as if working up some courage. This subtle action allows the audience to see that she has an agenda. She says she’s about to move to Florida and also has tickets to dinner and a show in Atlantic City this weekend. She asks Lou to share the tickets and we know she’d like him to share more than that.

Lou, however, refuses. Lou hates New Jersey:  “Whole state’s nothin’ but toll booths. Ever notice that they don’t charge ya for drivin’ into Jersey but comin’ the other way is five bucks? Proves my point. People’ll pay anything to get the hell outta Jersey.”

These are two lonely people. Each needs to have someone and it is Stella who realizes it first. But Lou is set in his ways, resists everything new, making fun of computers and cell phones. Stella suggests improving the bar’s lighting and Lou says no:  “People don’t come in here to be seen.”

Tentatively, Lou discloses that he cares for Stella. He’s afraid of getting old but reveals an even deeper fear of starting a new relationship which might inevitably lead to further loss. Burying a wife was so traumatizing that he can’t bear to imagine it happening again.

Meanwhile, Donnie is engaged to a woman he cares for but is scared by the idea of marriage, echoing the title-characters’ fear of entering a new relationship.

The performances by the veterans Teti and Saunders are masterpieces of subtlety. Graham’s artless dialogue is interpreted beautifully by Pete Pryor’s direction.

 

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