How good an actor is Francis Guinan? So good he commands attention even when he's silent. So good his role as a widowed bartender in Northlight Theatre's "Stella & Lou" seems tailored just for him. So good, his presence makes Bruce Graham's sentimental, pleasantly predictable dramedy a show worth seeing.
Not that the heavy lifting, which isn't all that strenuous, falls entirely to the Steppenwolf Theatre veteran. Co-star Rhea Perlman, the Emmy Award winner best known as Carla on TV's "Cheers," carries her share of the load. She plays Stella, a divorced nurse looking to change her life, to Guinan's Lou, a grieving husband who retreated from life after the death of his wife two years earlier.
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"Stella & Lou"★ ★ ★
Location: Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, (847) 673-6300 or northlight.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday; 1 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday through June 9. Also 7 p.m. May 26 and June 2. No 1 p.m. show May 22. No 7:30 p.m. show May 29.
Running time: About 80 minutes, no intermission
Parking: Free parking in lot
Rating: For teens and older
Centered on a pair of aging Baby Boomers confronting loneliness and depression, Graham's paint-by-numbers one-act offers few surprises -- although briefly, near the end, it feels as if it might. Instead Graham, whose Jeff Award-winning "The Outgoing Tide" premiered at Northlight in 2011, mines familiar territory with jokes about New Jersey, confounding cellphones and young adults' inability to communicate except via text. Then there's the challenge of pursuing romance late in life: surrendering the comfort that comes from routine and risking heartbreak at an age when the heart doesn't heal as easily as it once did.
Yet some real truths underscore the rather endearing quality of "Stella & Lou." And its world premiere benefits from Northlight artistic director BJ Jones' gentle direction and spot-on pacing as well as the considerable talent of his three-person cast.
The action unfolds in the faded Philadelphia bar Lou (Guinan) inherited from his father-in-law decades earlier. Designed by Brian Sidney Bembridge, it's a shot-and-a-beer neighborhood joint, with dim lighting, cheaply paneled walls and linoleum floors. Faded posters flank a single dart board, and a small mirrored disco ball hangs from the ceiling like an afterthought.
Lou and Donnie (a likably rumpled Ed Flynn) -- a newly, engaged twenty-something regular -- have just returned from the sparsely attended funeral of a longtime patron, a solitary sort that neither of them knew very well.
In walks Stella, a divorced mother of two grown children who stops by the bar several times a week after her nursing shift. She has just returned from visiting her daughter and granddaughter in Florida, refreshed and emboldened to tell the bartender she has long admired exactly how she feels.
Friendly banter accompanies Stella's subtle attempts to advance their relationship. She invites him to accompany her to Atlantic City for dinner and a show, an offer the still-grieving Lou politely declines. As for Donnie, increasing wedding expenses prompt him to begin to talk himself out of his engagement, much to Lou's dismay.
In a sense, Lou and Donnie parallel each other. Each is afraid to embark upon the next phase of life, the consequences of which are made painfully clear when they discover a box of unsent cards from Lou's late patron, a Hallmark metaphor for chances not taken, possibilities unfulfilled.
Effortlessly combining spunk and uncertainty, Perlman's compassionate Stella is a breath of spring in late autumn. Graham gives the character the funniest lines, which Perlman delivers expertly.
Then there's the ever-genuine Guinan. An actor incapable of playing a false note, his presence makes modest plays good and good plays great. Everything we need to know about Lou, every emotion he experiences, we read in Guinan's nuanced expressions and in the subtle shifts of his body.
How good an actor is Francis Guinan? So good he doesn't have to speak to make us feel.