presented by Merrimack Repertory Theatre
By Bruce Graham
Directed by Charles Towers
Review by Craig Idlebrook
(Lowell) Nelson Mandela once said, “There is no passion to be found playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” Yet many of us cling onto being small all our lives. Doing a play about that intentional smallness can be tricky without having the play succumb to smallness itself.“Stella and Lou”, playing at the MRT, decides to stage this struggle for staying inadequate by betting heavy on atmosphere. The set for the worn-down bar owned by Lou (Bill Geisslinger), the small man at the center of the story, is so nuanced that you feel you know the joint. It’s the uninteresting place just around the street that you either went in once and forgot or inhabit like a ghost. Geisslinger does much by doing little on stage, making no gesture by Lou too big, even his rage at becoming a widower. He becomes part of the tired old bar, a fate he loves and hates.
In walks Stella (Antoinette LaVecchia), an ER nurse and regular patron with an offer Lou is going to try really hard to refuse. Stella’s just a notch above fading away herself, but she’s still got some gumption left to pull away from utterly ordinary. LaVecchia is given a difficult task with Stella, who must be the grown-up in the room despite wanting to be small herself. Unfortunately, LaVecchia pushes the dialogue hard in the first half of the play, pulling us away from this dusty, believable atmosphere into a night at the theater.
Luckily, the understated sweetness and sorrow of Lou grounds Stella, and the last half of the play is an intimate conversation between two people who are not comfortable with words. This is a play whose plot and structure is never going to make headlines, but it succeeds in catching the moment when two tired souls become willing to give life another chance, and that makes it worth the price of admission.