From The African Queen to Marty to Rocky, plays and films about lonely misfits finding each other have had universal appeal.
Veteran Philadelphia playwright Bruce Graham takes on this theme in his enjoyable new comedy-drama Stella and Lou, currently receiving its regional premiere at People's Light & Theatre Company in Malvern. Director Pete Pryor's able production provides an excellent showcase for a trio of terrific character actors.
Graham has been examining the manners and attitudes of residents of the City of Brotherly Love for decades, and he's true to form here. His new play is set in a somewhat dingy South Philadelphia bar owned by Lou, a middle-aged man who lost his wife two years ago and has been emotionally closed off ever since. Late one night, in walks Stella, a divorced nurse who's one of Lou's regulars. She has just returned from visiting her daughter and her family in Florida and tells Lou she is thinking of moving there to watch her granddaughter grow up. Lou is disturbed by this and tries to persuade Stella to remain in Philadelphia, though he continually resists her efforts to forge a closer relationship.
Popping in and out of the bar is Donnie, Lou's younger friend. He has just become engaged but is plagued with doubts. Donnie's fear of commitment echoes what Lou is feeling. The three gradually try to unravel the tangle of emotion that has slowly paralyzed their lives.
A cast in balance
Marcia Saunders's superb Stella anchors the production, alternating between tough, savvy city gal and vulnerable, sensitive, aging woman. As Lou, Tom Teti properly keeps the character's emotions in check, but he also delivers Graham's sitcom zingers on New Jersey and other topics with deft comic timing. And Scott Greer delivers a bravura comic turn as Donnie, a volcano of emotion who seems incapable of keeping any thought unexpressed. His work in the scene in which Donnie returns to the bar ferociously drunk is a first-rate piece of physical comedy.
Set designer James F. Pyne Jr. creates a convincing South Philly taproom, complete with worn wood, pictures of generations of local sports figures, and the inevitable Rocky poster.
Stella and Lou is good, not-too-heavy summer fare, a play with humor that also offers food for thought and characters who stay with you after the lights have come up.