Oh, it's just the way you'd want it to be. Rhea Perlman is playing Stella in the soon-to-open "Stella & Lou" at Northlight Theatre — you likely know Perlman as Carla from television's iconic "Cheers."
She got the theater gig after getting a call from her old friend George Wendt ("Norm!"), who told her about the Bruce Graham play upcoming at Northlight. Wendt had been in Skokie last fall for "The Odd Couple" (though he had to leave that Northlight show at the last minute for health reasons), and artistic director BJ Jones had said to him that Perlman would make a great Stella. Perlman happened to know Graham's work, she said, from having seen "The Outgoing Tide" at the Galway Arts Festival last summer — she had hit up her pal John Mahoney for tickets. That Graham play had debuted at Northlight in 2011 under Jones' direction — with Chicago actor Mahoney playing the aging patriarch at the show's center — and had transferred to Ireland and was selling out houses.
Mahoney, in turn, had been on "Cheers" as a piano-playing jingle writer, pre-"Frasier" days ("Frasier," of course, was a "Cheers" spinoff). The two went out for drinks with Jones after.
The old "Cheers" gang, still together!
For the record, Perlman says she doesn't mind if you know her mostly as Carla Tortelli. "I wouldn't change those days for the world," she said of "Cheers." During her 11 seasons on the NBC sitcom, she won four Emmys, more than any other cast member. "That was the best job I'll ever have. I mean, I had three children during that time, it was the center of my life."
Perlman spoke with the Tribune on the eve of the first preview performance of "Stella & Lou" — also having its world premiere at Northlight. The play is set almost entirely in a bar; Stella is a middle-aged nurse who confronts Lou (Francis Guinan) about their relationship. The two have been friends for two years and Stella wants them to be more. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: Do you think about those in the audience who can't help but see you as Carla?
A: I don't mind it, but it's not really something I can control. I'm just trying to be present in this character, and hopefully people pretty quickly will see me as her.
Q: What's Stella like?
She's the aggressive one. Well, she's the one that wants a relationship, and on this night she's trying to get Lou to make a change. … These are two people of a certain age, with a lot of life experience. She'd like them to move on together. Stella's a nurse, she's been divorced a long time, and she just feels like she has a lot of life yet to live. She's not aggressive in Carla's sort of way, but she's outspoken. That is, she's been outspoken on other subjects, just not this one before.
Q: Do you feel like you've gotten a sense of Chicago theater working at Northlight?
Oh, I love it — every time I'm in New York it seems the shows I'm interested in have come from Chicago. I've been getting to know (Guinan and Jones), these guys work so much in theater, and are so comfortable and so natural onstage. It's been a learning experience for me, it really has. This has been the best rehearsal process I've ever been in.
Q: Would you work here again?
A: I would, although it takes a lot to be here. (She's been joined by her husband, Danny DeVito, and her family during the run.) My home is really in Los Angeles now.
'Stella & Lou'
When: Through June 9
Where: Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie
Tickets: $25-$72 at 847-673-6300 and northlight.org