What becomes of the brokenhearted? In his tender and engaging dramedy Stella and Lou, playwright Bruce Graham firmly believes the emotionally wounded are able to heal with the passage of time but not without significant prodding.
Directed with gentle realism by J. Gary Thompson in an excellent local premiere by the Dayton Theatre Guild, this charming story of doubts and uncertainties in one’s twilight years, occurring in real time, concerns the friendship between a Philadelphia bar owner and a divorced nurse. Stella (Amy Taint) has had enough of her humdrum life and feels an opportunity to start anew in Florida is her ticket out. “A registered nurse in Florida?,” she quips. “I get off the plane they’re asking for my resume!” However, Stella isn’t sure about venturing into the great unknown alone. So, she asks Lou (Geoff Burkman), still grieving the loss of his wife, Lucille, to join her. With lighthearted assistance from Donnie (Adam Clevenger), one of Lou’s loyal, younger patrons, the play transpires as a quietly engrossing character study detailing the importance of connection, forgiveness, purpose, and choosing to optimistically embrace the future.
The expressive Taint, playful, determined and affecting, endearingly captures Stella’s personable spunk and substantial worries. In her capable hands, there’s no denying Stella’s desire to leave the familiar for a fresh start. Yet along the way, her portrayal, which leans toward comedy, dramatically softens and deepens, particularly bringing beautiful credence to Stella’s fear of aging and living a solitary existence. Burkman, seen last season at the Guild as hospital administrator Carr-Gomm in The Elephant Man, is equally sharp and meaningful. Effectively conveying Lou’s beleaguered and weary essence in physicality and conversation, Burkman powerfully uncovers the depths of Lou’s pain as a widower late in Act Two, specifically Lou’s reflections on coming home to an empty house every night and basically resigning himself to a life of endless stagnation. Although Lou is an introvert of his own making, deliberately closing the door to any possibility of romance or companionship, Burkman cracks the character’s tough, unyielding exterior just enough to prove how vital Stella is as the glimmer of hope he’s been waiting for. Clevenger is an admirable presence in a humorous if superfluous role essentially written to digest and counter thoughtful discussions of marriage and relationships. In addition, D. Tristan Cupp’s wonderfully authentic sports bar set is fittingly accented with nifty memorabilia, numerous bottles of alcohol and a dartboard.
Poignant and relatable, Stella and Lou is a refreshing testament to the joy of second chances.
Stella and Lou continues through Feb. 4 at the Dayton Theatre Guild, 430 Wayne Ave., Dayton. Performances are Friday at 8 pm, Saturday at 5 pm, and Sunday at 3 pm. Act One: 55 minutes; Act Two: 40 minutes. Tickets are $13-$20. For tickets or more information, call (937) 278-5993 or visit daytontheatreguild.org.