FORT WORTH Finding love later in life, after the benefit of having learned lessons that come with the experience of living, is rich subject matter that has been explored in films like Amour or pretty much anything Diane Keaton has done in the past decade.
So it goes with Bruce Graham’s 2013 play Stella & Lou, but he doesn’t let his title characters get away with anything as easy as a rekindling of fireworks that could lead to yet another happily ever after for either of these over-60 people.
In Circle Theatre’s regional premiere of the play — it’s the sixth Graham play staged here since 2003 — there’s a slow, steady rise throughout the 90-minute, intermissionless work that may not satisfy anyone who doesn’t want the feel-goods to come with doses of depression. But with thoughtful direction by Robin Armstrong, who’s best known for fast-paced farce, it’s a production that reaffirms the notion that life moves forward, even if tangentially.
John S. Davies plays Lou, who has owned his eponymous Philadelphia bar for many years. Lisa Fairchild is Stella, a loyal customer who normally comes to the bar she describes as “dingy” after work and wearing scrubs, but this time shows up in a pretty dress hoping to catch Lou at closing time.
Over time, they’ve obviously developed feelings for one another, and Stella is determined to see that something happens. By the final words of the play, it looks as if something will — but we’ll never know.
Ambiguity is a factor in many of Graham’s plays, and that’s what works in this tautly scripted tale of two people not sure what’s around the bend. They are willing to explore it, even if cautiously. It doesn’t help that there are “proceed with caution” signs all around them, although not directly related to their potential relationship.
On this day, for instance, Stella makes her case as Lou has been to the funeral of a longtime patron. Not a happy story there. To boot, another customer, Donnie (an effective Eric Wilder), is having third and fourth thoughts about his impending marriage to a woman we hear about but never meet.
Armstrong gets nuanced performances from Davies and Fairchild — this is the latter’s best work in years. Davies embodies the conundrum of a man who can’t decide if he’d just rather stay lonely as long as he has friends and/or customers. There’s more of an air of desperation in Stella, but you never get the sense that she’d settle for anything less than a man she has slowly grown fond of and has faith in. She has standards, and Lou measures up.
Clare Floyd DeVries’ set fits the description by the characters. Lou’s might be a dingy dive, but it feels like a homey place where friendships have room to blossom and, hopefully for these two characters, love isn’t out of reach — no matter what life experience has taught them.