21 August 2016

Stella & Lou, by Bruce Graham

When you have a good script and very good actors, community theatre can produce some really special moments. And that’s precisely what happened at MT Pocket’s production of Bruce Graham’s Stella & Lou, directed by Vickie Trickett. With a funny, heart-breaking story, and three wonderful performers, the production was a treat.

Stella & Lou focuses on the aging Lou, owner of a seedy New York bar, who has just come from burying Reilly, one of his patrons. Stella is a nurse and semi-regular at the bar, and she comes in late after she thinks everyone else has left for the night. Stella wants to talk to Lou about going with her on a trip she’s won to Atlantic City. However, she tries to negotiate this conversation around Donnie—another bar regular—having second thoughts about his engagement and the amount of money the wedding is likely to cost. Finally, Donnie leaves and Stella tries to convince Lou, who is both still grieving for his late wife and opposed to any change, in the bar or in his life.

MT Pockets put together three of their best talents for this production: Robert Wolfe played Lou, Cynthia Ulrich played Stella, and Sean Bonnette was Donnie. Wolfe and Ulrich were especially good together, which is really what the play needs to succeed—a Lou and Stella who play well together. Wolfe is a consistently strong performer, and his portrayal of the lonely bar owner was spot on. He alternated between bursts of energy when something needed to be cleaned, concern that Donnie didn’t mess up his relationship, and a nostalgic back and forth with Stella. But it was easy to see he was also a deeply troubled man, through his hunched stance and inability to face Stella when they spoke about his late wife, Wolfe conveyed the emotional torment of a man isolated out of his fear of loss.

Ulrich was, as always, fantastic as the caring nurse who had loved Lou from afar, merely, it seems, for being a genuinely nice guy. Throughout the early portion of the play, Ulrich conveyed to the audience that Stella was romantically interested in Lou, though he himself was oblivious. But the deeper aspect of the character came out after Donnie finally left for the night, and Stella could overtly launch herself into trying to save Lou (and herself). Setting up the dichotomy of Lou or Florida, Stella tries to save both of them from the crippling loneliness of their lives—he a widower and she divorced. Through this latter portion of the play, Ulrich balanced between hope that she might convince the reclusive Lou to give their potential relationship a chance, and the realization that he would, inevitably, reject her and she had sacrificed her dignity in asking him out for nothing. And this dichotomy was underrun with a current of dread at the prospect of dying alone, with no one to notice or miss her—a dread underwritten for both Stella and Lou by Riley’s death and poorly attended funeral.

I’m still not a huge fan of the new MT Pockets theatre space, but of the shows I’ve seen in the new space, this stage set up and lighting were the best. Unlike in previous productions in the space, the lighting seemed arranged to actually cover the entire stage space, including off stage left where a small amount of action occurred. And while they still need to do something about the white wall behind and above the stage, the set itself looked professional and really conveyed the seediness of Lou’s bar.