Rhea Perlman (from left), Ed Flynn and Francis Guinan star in "Stella & Lou" at Northlight Theatre in Skokie.
Stella & Lou
Through June 9, Northlight Theatre, 9501 N. Skokie, Skokie, 847-673-6300; northlight.org, $25-$72
Updated: May 9, 2013 7:19PM
For the legions of fans of that longrunning sitcom “Cheers,” the Brooklyn-bred, multiple Emmy Award-winning actress Rhea Perlman will forever be Carla Tortelli, the cynical, wise-cracking mother of eight who worked as a waitress in a Boston bar and appeared in every episode of the show from 1982 to 1993.
But these days, Perlman is hanging out in another bar — this one in Philadelphia — where she plays Stella, a long-divorced nurse in search of some changes in her life. And it is there that she engages in rather serious conversation with Lou (played by Steppenwolf veteran Francis Guinan), the widower who owns the bar and has spent many years as a caretaker for his wife.
You will find this bar on stage at Northlight Theatre, where Bruce Graham’s dramedy, “Stella & Lou,” is receiving its world premiere under the direction of BJ Jones.
So what possessed Perlman, the real-life wife of Danny DeVito, and the mother of three grown kids (one an actress, another a visual artist and yoga teacher and a son who is starting to produce movies in New York) — to leave Los Angeles and head to Skokie for what turned out to be a very extended winter?
“Last summer, I went to see Danny in a London production of ‘The Sunshine Boys.’ I took two friends with me, and we just randomly decided to take a side trip to Galway, on the west coast of Ireland. When we got there we realized a big arts festival was underway, and John Mahoney, who I know, was starring in a play by Bruce Graham called ‘The Outgoing Tide’ [which debuted at Northlight in 2011]. So I slipped him a note, and we all saw the play — which I loved — and afterward I met Rondi Reed and BJ [Jones]. Then, in December, by way of George Wendt, I was asked if I wanted to read a new play by Bruce and I said ‘Sure.’ I immediately understood the characters. So I came in to do a reading, and we found just the right dates so that I could get back in time to start work on ‘Kirstie’s New Show,” a new reality-comedy for TV Land, about a Broadway diva type. I play Ally’s assistant and best friend, Thelma.”
The lure of “Stella & Lou” is “how real it is,” said Perlman.
“So many people I know, who have reached a certain age, sense there are still a lot of years remaining, and they ask the question: ‘Okay, what do I do with all the time left?”
While “Stella & Lou” marks Perlman’s first appearance on a Chicago stage she is no stranger to the theater.
“That’s how I started in the business, and for some reason I seem to get back to the stage about every six years,” she said. “The last time was for [the farcical] ‘Boeing-Boeing’ in London. And frankly, every time I return I say ‘never again’ because it’s too terrifying and unpredictable. But then I do it, and I’m happy and fine.”
But Perlman, who said she is tremendously impressed with her co-stars — both Guinan and Ed Flynn, who plays Donny, a young customer at the bar — expects DeVito to be part of the opening night audience, and “of course that will make me more nervous.”
Guinan, who was performing in the Steppenwolf production of Harold Pinter’s “The Birthday Party” at the same time he began rehearsals for “Stella & Lou,” finds Graham’s play attractive for two reasons: “The language is very direct and simple. And it fits this character because Lou is a simple guy — a man who says exactly what he means and doesn’t go in for wearing his heart on his sleeve. At base he also is a very stubborn man, and one who expects very little of life. And he has made his late wife into something of a saint — whether real or imagined.”
Working with Rhea has been a great pleasure.
“She is a total professional,” he said. “She came in fully memorized, which put me to shame, and has been emotionally open to everything going on onstage, and to me. She is very creative, very open to what we improvised, and didn’t come in with any preconceived notions about the characters. And [Guinan chuckled here] all this was a reminder to me that there are people outside of Steppenwolf who also are working on all eight cylinders.”
As for how Perlman manages to remain so “normal” after all these decades in high-profile show business, the actress laughs and says: “I’ve been lucky not to have to obsess about work. And I take breaks. I garden. And I’m very involved with the whole issue of foster care, and the need for kids just beyond the age of care to have some kind of safety net.”
“About being well adjusted, well, do not believe what you see. The older I get the more I believe there is no such thing as that. It’s just degrees of dysfunctionality.”