Stella and Lou, and New American Drama at the Galway Arts Festival

On Sunday night I went to see Stella and Lou at the Galway Arts Festival. It’s a new play by Bruce Graham, produced by Chicago’s Northlight Theater, which came to Galway last year with another Graham play called The Outgoing Tide.

Both plays share a similar interest in old age and its attendant dilemmas. In The Outgoing Tide, Frasier’s John Mahony played a man who is suffering from the early stages of dementia. Fearing the loss of his dignity and worried about becoming a burden to his family, Mahony’s character determines that he wants to end his life. The play becomes a debate between him, his son and his wife about whether he should be allowed to do that.

I chaired a post-show talk last year with Mahony, Rondi Reed, BJ Jones (who directed) and Graham. I’ve chaired a lot of  discussions before but none has ever been quite like this: the audience seemed both emotionally charged and ready to talk, and where normally some of that energy might have been caused by the celebrity of Mahony, here it was largely due to the subject matter. A number of people in the audience spoke about how the play had affected them personally, either because they knew someone who had suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease, or perhaps because they too worried about the prospect of the loss of memory. It was strange to find such a fusion of intellectual energy and emotional vulnerability in the room.

Graham himself made a strong impression on me. He is a former stand-up comedian, and it shows: in person during the post-show he was ebullient and charming. But he also had a very serious approach to the difficult subject of euthanasia. Rather than strongly propagandizing for or against it, he instead tried to assert the dignity of the person who chooses to exercise his or her will. We never felt that Mahony’s character was making a right or wrong choice, I think – but we did leave the theatre respecting his right to make it.

Stella and Lou deals with an issue that is less immediate and certainly less contentious – which is the question of what happens to people who find themselves alone in their late 50s or early 60s. The eponymous characters spend much of the play in debate about whether to get together: Stella is frightened of the prospect of being alone (of dying alone, really), and Lou is frightened of the prospect of loving again if doing so brings with it the loss of another person he loves (he is a widower). The play tries to find common ground between these two apparently conflicting fears.

It’s been said many times that our culture prioritises youth over old age. So it was interesting to be in a theatre where the characters on stage matched the age profile of the majority of the people in the audience, who were themselves mostly in their late 50s and early 60s. I kept hearing laughter of recognition in response to the play’s jokes about aging, and a bit of running commentary from the people around me about how the play reminded them of events and people in their own lives.

It had never really occurred to me before that theatre rarely focusses on aging in this way. Yes, there are many plays about dementia, especially in Ireland where it seems like every playwright has written at least one drama on that topic. But I don’t often see characters on stage who resemble so closely the people in the audience. Their accents are different and of course the play’s American setting introduces some cultural differences. But the play’s treatment of aging seemed to hit home.

I was also struck by how good it felt to watch some strong American acting. Two members of the cast have played with Steppenwolf, and it was refreshing to see that style being performed so well. It’s difficult to describe this kind of acting without either fetishising it or making it seem bland, but I’m referring here to a kind of heightened or stylised naturalism, whereby the actors talk in ways that seem absolutely credible, even though in reality no-one ever talks or moves like that. Everything is just slightly heightened, from the rhythm and cadences of delivery to the movement around stage. If you wanted to be unfair you could describe this as acting in ALL CAPS, but there’s plenty of room for subtlety in there too.

The style is also evident in the choice of play, which is an 80 minute resolution of a dramatic problem. The setting is the real world and if there is something a bit too reassuring about the raising of problems only to persuade the audience that they can be wrapped up in less than 90 minutes, the discussion is usually stimulating and engaging.

The introduction of interesting American work has been a specialism of the Galway Arts Festival over the years. Bruce Norris’s Purple Heart is on in London at the moment, but it was seen in Galway some years ago when Steppenwolf brought it here. And one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had at the Arts Festival was a play by Craig Wright called Orange Flower Water back in 2004. Wright was one of the writers on Six Feet Under, and his play explored the ways in which sex and love ought to complement each other but can instead cancel each other out (rather like Six Feet Under, in fact).

Stella and Lou won’t be to everyone’s taste but I appreciated it for its focus on plot, character, discussion, realism and – most of all – first-rate acting.

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