ONE OF the big hits of last year’s Galway Arts Festival was Northlight Theatre Company’s production of Bruce Graham’s moving comedy-drama, The Outgoing Tide. Audiences will be delighted therefore to welcome the Chicago ensemble back to this year’s festival with Graham’s latest play, Stella and Lou.
Set in a blue-collar Philadelphia bar, the play introduces us to three kindred spirits who find themselves on the cusp of change. There is Lou, the kindly yet lonesome bartender and his two customers; Stella, a feisty nurse with two grown kids and a failed marriage, and Donnie, a young barfly fretting over the prospect of his impending wedding.
All three are confronted with changing times and relationships past as they struggle to find their way toward happier futures in a play that offers an intimate portrayal of friendship, forgiveness, and the longing for companionship.
Like Outgoing Tide, Stella and Lou is directed by Northlight’s artistic director, BJ Jones and ahead of his company’s arts festival return he took some time to talk about the play.
Jones is now in his 15th year as Northlight artistic director. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, where he was a child actor, he moved to Chicago in 1976 and joined the then nascent Northlight. He amassed numerous acting and directing credits with Northlight, Steppenwolf, and other leading companies before taking on Northlight’s artistic directorship in 1998.
“Bruce and I have known each other since 1986, though Outgoing Tide was the first play of his I have directed,” he tells me, speaking by phone from his Chicago office. “We did a play of his at Northlight called Belmont Avenue Social Club back in 1992 and I’ve kept in touch with him ever since and admired his work. So one day I called him up and said ‘I’d like to commission you to write a play for John Mahoney’ which became The Outgoing Tide. Stella and Lou was also a commission.”
Outgoing Tide revolved around an elderly couple and their adult son as the family try to cope with the father’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and his wish to ctake his own life. Stella and Lou also features two older characters and a younger one.
“The bulk of theatre-going audiences in the States are an older audience base with, shall we say, seasoned concerns,” Jones points out. “In Outgoing Tide Bruce delved into one set of problems, in Stella and Lou it’s a different set of problems and they reflect interestingly on the younger character’s issues.
“There’s a potentially dire outcome in the play, a sense of loneliness and isolation. In our society everyone who is not ‘partnered up’ has grave concerns about their latter years,” says Jones. “For instance, I have an aunt who is 93 and in hospital battling cancer for the third time. She wants to be able to move home but she lives in Ohio and I’m in Chicago and my brother is in San Diego so that makes things difficult.
“There is a grave fear in all of us that in our latter years there could be spiritual and very real isolation and loneliness and what is going to happen to us when we get to the endgame? There is that notion in the play that there is the potential for partnership among these folks, even if it may not be the kind of partnership you had in your thirties. There is a darker edge to Stella and Lou. Even though the play is very funny and audiences really enjoy it there is a real deep resonance and emotional core to the ideas explored in it.”
The resonance Jones identifies in the play can be partly attributed to the fact that author Bruce Graham is himself in his mid-fifties but he reveals there is more to it than that.
“The play has some of its roots in a film script Bruce wrote years ago called Riley’s Last Request, which featured the characters Stella and Lou. The film wasn’t made, largely because Hollywood wasn’t interested in a middle-aged love story, but the characters continued to fascinate him,” says Jones.
“The other inspiration for the story came from his father who is a widower. He’d been living alone then one day he said to Bruce that this lady, Blanche, who was a neighbour had asked him out to dinner and he was wondering would that be OK and Bruce said ‘Yeah! Absolutely, let me pay!’ so his dad started dating Blanche and they ended up getting married and spending 27 years together. So the play is very close to Bruce’s personal life experience.”
Jones next discusses the cast who will feature in Stella and Lou’s Galway run and, in the process, reveals details of an exciting Galway-linked Northlight premiere.
“Chief among the cast is Francis Guinan as Lou. Francis has played in Galway before with Steppenwolf and he’s just been in the TV series Boss with Kelsey Grammer. We’ve known each other for years and he has done several shows with Northlight. He’s a remarkable actor who is unstintingly real and honest onstage.
“Penny Slusher plays Stella. She and John Mahoney did Hugh Leonard’s A Life for us back in 2010 and both of them will be featuring in our premiere production of Galway writer Christian O’Reilly’s new play Chapati next spring. The role of Donnie is taken by Ed Flynn who is a member of the GIFT ensemble, he’s an actor and screenwriter and is a really terrific up-and-coming performer.”
Jones emphasises just how much he is looking forward to Northlight’s imminent Galway visit.
“Both my wife and I are of Irish extraction,” he says. “My full name is O’Hickey Jones, I had family in Waterford. My forebears came to the US well before the Famine, my great great grandfather worked on the Van Der Bildt mansion and he ended up in Cleveland. I grew up to be a theatre artist and it means so much to me to be able to go back to Ireland where all my people are from and to bring my work back an Irish audiences.”
And his final words on Stella and Lou?
“This show has already been a big hit for us,” he says. “It’s set in Philadelphia and is an American play but its themes are multinational and very human. I think it speaks to a broad span of people. It’s very accessible, funny, and moving.”
Stella and Lou runs from Tuesday July 16 to Sunday July 21 at the Town Hall Theatre at 8pm with matinees on July 19 and 20 at 2pm. For tickets see www.galwayartsfestival.com