In his poignant one act, “Stella and Lou,” which has performances this week and next at Heartland Theatre, Playwright Bruce Graham offers an intimate look, from generational perspectives, at life, relationships and the progressions of each through the passage of time.

Life. Death. Love. Loss. These words could serve as street names one encounters along the path of a lifetime. Of course, they would intersect with boulevards named joy, hope, and contentment.

At one point or another, we walk down them all.

Stella, a middle-aged nurse, sits at the junction of Regret and Longing. Lou, a curmudgeon of a bar owner she just might be in love with, has, since the death of his wife, been stuck on the corner of Despair and Heartache.

Donny, a young bar regular who is sort of a surrogate son to Lou, finds himself anxiously waiting at the crossroads of “I Now Pronounce You Man and Wife” and “Run While You Still Can.”

Perhaps the suds on draft in Lou’s dingy Philadelphia tavern will have the answers these three are looking for.

Graham’s work, in the tender and talented hands of director Sandra Zielinski, is equal parts wit and wisdom, thanks to the efforts of her relatable cast: Brett Cottone, as the anxious groom-to-be, Donny; Lynda Rettick as the feisty, yet weary, Stella; and Dave Lemmon as the lovable Lou.

Lemmon skillfully tugs at the heartstrings, darting through Lou’s emotional labyrinth as though it were a straight line. One minute he’s cantankerous, the next he’s soft, all the while remaining true — to himself and to his memories.

The delightful Rettick matches Lemmon’s pace beautifully, presenting a second chance at life for a man who seems to have forgotten the difference between just being alive and actually living.

Finally, Cottone, in his Heartland debut, is a wonderfully relatable average Joe in the throes of a full-blown panic attack, which we learn has been brewing for a week, following the sudden death of a friendless bar regular whom he was forced to eulogize.

Scenic designer Curtis Trout employs drab shades of green with copper accents, a working tap, and a host of other impressive details to create a playing space so exquisite you could practically smell the stale beer. Gail Dobbins’ costume design completes the picture, enhanced by Anita McDaniel’s lighting design.

"Stella and Lou" is a charming production that will be especially endearing to those with a bit more life experience. The opening night crowd last weekend rewarded the production with an immediate and well-deserved standing ovation amid sniffles and nods of familiarity with a dash of “been there, done that” added for good measure. I’m glad I remembered to bring some Kleenex.

Stiller is a freelance writer who reviews plays for The Pantagraph.


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