Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Stella and Lou

Playwright:  Bruce Graham

Company:  Vintage Theatre

Venue:  Vintage Theatre, 1468 Dayton Street, Aurora, Colorado.

Running time:  85 minutes (no intermission).

Date of Performance:  Friday, November 18, 2016. 

Bruce Graham is an award winning playwright who knows a lot about life, love, loss, and the challenge of our sunset years.  Graham’s The Outgoing Tide is probably one of the best scripts I’ve ever seen on these subjects.  His characters are real people, and his stories explore the most painful problems of our lives.   It's no simple task, but Graham has a gift for capturing the meaning of life in both our most mundane and most profound moments.

Graham’s Stella and Lou is a whip smart script that cleverly combines what would seem to be mutually exclusive themes:  comedy and grief.  It’s simultaneously laugh out loud funny and joyless.  Lou (played by Chris Kendall at his most despondent) is a good guy who cannot handle losing his wife two years ago.  Stella (played by a completely disarming Emma Messenger) is on a mission to push, pull or drag Lou out of the pit of his extended grief.  Donnie (Peter Marullo) is too young to get it.  He’s engaged but not in love.  Donnie doesn’t see that he’s facing the same dilemma as Lou:  when you stop living you start dying.  

The story is at once tender and gut wrenching.  Lou can’t get past his loss.  Stella, a nurse who cared for Lou’s wife, wants to help Lou get out of his funk.  It’s a challenge; Lou rejects all attempts to break out of his grief.  He is determined to mourn his wife indefinitely.

Chris Kendall (Lou).
Director Lorraine Scott’s cast is small but powerful (two members of this cast won "Bill's Best" awards in 2015).  Chris Kendall is both inspired and inspiring, fleshing out the deep despair that has beaten Lou to an emotional pulp.  Kendall doesn’t just speak Graham’s words.  His gait, his facial expressions, his halting delivery, and his gestures all contribute to the black emotional pit that Lou inhabits.   Kendall gives us hints of Lou’s lost humanity, generously donating $1,000 to Donnie as a wedding gift.  Even in his generosity, though, Kendall comes across as a tired old man distributing his earthly possessions before it’s too late.  

Kendall won the Best Actor Award (Drama, Large Companies) in my 2015 "Bill's Best" post for his role in Outside Mullingar.  He's in the running now for the 2016 version as well.

Peter Marullo (Donnie).
Peter Marullo’s role is critical; Donnie is an emotionally immature adult who senses the hazards in life.  He’s engaged, but highly uncertain whether he should be getting married.  Sometimes alcohol helps ease the distress, but it also increases his confusion.  That Lou and Stella give him conflicting advice doesn’t help.  Marullo deftly takes Donnie from angry and confused to an emerging adult in charge of his life decisions.  It’s a transition that seems lost on Lou, who refuses to confront his fears until the very last minute.

Emma Messenger (Stella).
Emma Messenger made me cringe with both empathy and sympathy; her low key pleas to Lou were ignored or rejected outright.  No matter how sincere, how persistent, or emotional her approach, Lou was as impenetrable as the packaging for a new compact disc.  Messenger uses her full arsenal of chicanery to reach Lou, and is crushed when it all seems to fail.  Ms. Messenger has a gift for enchanting and enthralling audiences on every stage she steps onto; the Vintage stage is no exception.  This is a full throttle Emma Messenger performance; she grabs the audience by the lapels and won’t let go until the lights go down.  If you haven’t seen her onstage before, Lou and Stella will make you a fan.  

Ms. Messenger won the Best Actress Award (Drama, Small Companies, tied with Haley Johnson) in my 2015 "Bill's Best" for her role in 'Night Mother, also at the Vintage.  To quote Tina Turner, she’s “simply the best” at what she does.

Lorraine Scott’s direction is sensitive, especially with regard to the male characters.  In the hands of another director, Lou might come off as self centered and lost.  Scott keeps him lovable but trapped in a very dark place.  Her touch with Donnie is also telling.  He won’t take calls from his soon to be wife, and he keeps drinking when he should be thinking.  Still, Scott keeps him likable even when he’s thoroughly misguided.

Door/Window.  Set by Jeff Jesmer.
Set designer Jeff Jesmer has skillfully created a Philadelphia bar, complete with a working beer tap.  Jessmer uses a door/window combination at stage left, and the cast uses it for both interior and exterior locations simultaneously.  It’s a dramatic enhancement; we see Stella primping outside before she enters the bar. 

Graham’s vision of profound grief is both disturbing and yet human.  Grief is universal; we will all experience loss, and we will all walk a mile in Lou’s shoes.  There’s no “Owner’s Manual” to tell us how to handle our own loss.  We muddle through as best we can.  While Lou’s despair is deeper and longer than most, no one can criticize him for it.  Grief sets its own pace.  He needed help; Stella gave it to him.  Graham’s script gave her a valid reason to act, but Stella probably would have helped Lou for no reason at all.  

That is perhaps the message that Graham cares about most.  Don’t be a bystander to suffering.  Reach out.  Take a hand.  Make a difference.  Graham reminds us that failure is likely, but if we can heal even 1% of the suffering around us, we can change a life for the better.  Those are long odds, but the effort is noble and the results can be heroic.

Lou's Bar, complete with working beer tap.  Set by Jeff Jesmer.


This show closes on November 27, 2016.  This show is appropriate for teens and up.

Graham has another thread in Stella and Lou that would merit a stand alone play.  Ask yourself these questions:  

1.  “Who will be there at my funeral?  

2.  "What will they say about me?”  

Very good questions, and ones that I have been mulling over since the curtain call at the Vintage.

FULL DISCLOSURE:  The story of Stella and Lou closely tracks the last five years of my life.  The love, the loss, and the grief are all still fresh for me, as is Stella’s heroic effort at emotional rescue.  For that reason, I suspect Stella and Lou may have had a bigger impact on me than it would have when I was 25.  Or 35  Or 45.  I’m a wiser person now than I was then, and Stella and Lou captures my own emotional evolution.

Photo Credit:  Vintage Theatre



Executive Director:  Craig A. Bond

Artistic Director:  Bernie Cardell

Production Director:  Lorraine Scott

Board Liason:  Sharon Dwinnell

Production Manager:  Biz Schaugaard

Assistant Director:  Sharon Dwinnell

Set Designer/Master Builder:  Jeff Jesmer

Scenic Painter:  Julie LeMieux

Lighting Design:  Jen Orf

Sound Design:  Rick Reid

Dialect Coach:  Jeff Parker

Props:  Beki Pineda

Costume Design:  Katalena Valdez

Stage Manager:  Andrew KC Nicholas


Stella:  Emma Messenger

Donnie:  Peter Marullo

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