I recently read an interview with the brilliant writer and art critic John Berger, now ninety years old, in which Kate Kellaway quotes Berger’s Ways of Seeing : “The secret of reading aloud well, he says...is ‘refusing to look ahead, to be in the moment.’ And he says that a story puts its listener ‘in an eternal present.’” Being “in the moment” is a cliché these days, but the concept is potent, and the quote made me think about the art of acting. The best actors I know are always fully alive and utterly present on the stage (or, being human, almost always present), never wondering if they’ll remember the next line, if the prop person’s placed a necessary gun, fan or cigar where it belongs, where they’ll stop for a beer after the performance or, worst of all, how well they’re doing. An actor who’s actually living the reality of the play is mesmerizing to watch, taking you out of yourself and your own thoughts and worries and transporting you to another world entirely. That’s exactly what Emma Messenger (Stella) and Chris Kendall (Lou) — two of the best actors around Denver — do in Bruce Graham’s Stella and Lou, with the able help of Peter Marullo as Donnie in this Vintage Theatre production.
The place they take you isn’t exactly inspiring. It’s Lou’s dingy South Philadelphia bar, which is neither a meeting spot for friends nor a cozy refuge for local eccentrics, but a place where regulars stare morosely into their beers, passing the hours till closing time — or perhaps death. As the action begins, Lou and Donnie have just attended the funeral of one of these longtimers — a “total asshole,” according to Donnie — whose final rites were attended by only a handful of fellow drinkers. Donnie is about to get married and is twitching with anger and nerves about what he perceives as his wife-to-be’s unreasonable demands for the wedding. As for Lou, you get the impression that he was never exactly a live wire, and since the death of his wife from cancer two years earlier, he’s given up on life and is retreating further and further into habit, loneliness and complete inaction. He is clearly pleased, however, when his friend Stella walks into the empty bar as he’s closing up, wearing a summer dress and, uncharacteristically for her, heels.
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With occasional vivid interruptions from Donnie, most of the evening is taken up by the emotional dance that ensues between Stella and Lou. She wants something more from him than a beer or two: warmth, even affection — in short, a shot at life and living. She tells him that she’s won tickets for dinner and a show in Atlantic City. He’s glum and uninterested. She says she’s thinking of moving to Florida because there’s nothing for her in Philly. You can tell he’s unnerved by this information, but he still doesn’t rise to the bait.
And that’s pretty much it for plot. But there’s humor in Graham’s script and half-submerged wisdom, and as Stella and Lou talk, their characters are revealed and become rich and interesting. He has the cynicism and weariness of a bar owner who’s listened to dozens, perhaps hundreds of stories over the years, but her experiences go even deeper: She’s an ER nurse who has witnessed suffering and death; she knows all about the significance of human contact when people are facing the most extreme events of their lives, and what it means to struggle through these events without it. Messenger’s Stella is strong, warm and humorous, full of life, but also careful and restrained. There are moments when you just want to leap onto the stage and shake Kendall as, after a few fatherly exchanges with Donnie, his Lou moves backward, turtle-like, into his shell.
No one who saw Graham’s White Guy on the Bus at Curious last spring will be expecting this offering from the playwright. White Guy was an explosive rendering of the terrible strains between whites and blacks in this country; it climaxed in a physical attack by a powerful, wealthy and supposedly civilized white guy on a black woman. Stella and Lou is low-key, gentle, frequently funny and essentially sweet-humored. But the emotional depths, though quiet, are profound, and the acting so honest that the play’s ninety minutes indeed create an eternal present.
Stella and Lou, presented by Vintage Theatre through November 27, 1468 Daytona Street, Aurora, 303-856-7830, vintagetheatre.org.