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Rhea Perlman, Francis Guinan save tavern tale from its routine plot

A bar regular (RhePerlman “Cheers”) tries connect with its owner (Francis Guinan) “Stell  Lou.” | Michael Brosilow photo

A bar regular (Rhea Perlman, of “Cheers”) tries to connect with its owner (Francis Guinan) in “Stella & Lou.” | Michael Brosilow photo

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‘Stella & Lou’


When: Through June 9

Where: Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie

Tickets: $25-$72

Info: (847) 673-6300;

Run time: 90 minutes with no intermission

Updated: June 14, 2013 6:20AM

It is a brief anecdote, related toward the end of Bruce Graham’s play “Stella & Lou” — now in its world premiere at Northlight Theatre — that most succinctly sums up the abiding fear and anxiety of at least one of his sixtysomething title characters.

It is the more outgoing Stella (Rhea Perlman), a registered nurse, long-divorced mother of two grown children and relatively new grandmother, who tells the story. And she does so not only to explain herself, but to knock some sense into Lou, a long-married, childless man who has been widowed for two years and has rarely ventured much beyond the neighborhood tavern in Philadelphia he has run for decades.

The anecdote is heartbreaking: It tells of an elderly woman with no relations or close friends who worries she might die in her home and not be found for days. So she has told her neighbors that she will tie a ribbon around her front doorknob each night, and if it hasn’t been removed by 8 a.m. the following morning someone should alert the authorities. Mortality is one thing; dying alone is quite another.

In a sense, “Stella & Lou” is something of a companion piece to Graham’s 2011 play “The Outgoing Tide,” which also debuted at Northlight under the direction of BJ Jones, and dealt with the fading faculties of an aging, fiercely independent man whose wife and son don’t quite know how to handle things. But this newer play is a less subtle and sophisticated work. And were it not for the skill and relentless commitment of its principal actors — veteran “Cheers” star Rhea Perlman, with her perfect timing and easy warmth and vulnerability, as Stella, and Steppenwolf’s ideally understated Francis Guinan as Lou — it would be a pretty routine if darker-than-average dramedy.

While Stella generally stops by the bar (a dingy, wood-paneled classic designed by Brian Sidney Bembridge) a few times a week, more for fellowship than to drink, on this particular night she comes with a plan. She has just won a prize — dinner and a show for two at an Atlantic City casino — and she hopes Lou might be her “date.” She is in need of significant change in her life. And either she will try to forge a bond with a man she knows to be decent and kind (if as far from adventurous as imaginable, and scared of a second love), or she will relocate to Florida and devote herself to being a grandmother.

Throughout, little bursts of comic relief come by way of Donnie (Ed Flynn), Lou’s young, bumbling bartender, who is in a state of panic as he faces his wedding, and as his fiance is racking up bills and trying to “improve” him.

Without giving away the ending, I will only say that I wish Graham had not opted for the feel-good outcome. But maybe F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong when he said that “there are no second acts in American lives.”

One final note for the celebrity-minded: Perlman’s husband, Danny DeVito, proudly planted himself in Friday’s opening night audience and, along with the couple’s son, joined in cheering the actors as they took their bows.

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