WALNUT CREEK -- Perched precariously on high stools at a Peet's Coffee and Tea just a skip and a hop from Diablo Actors' Ensemble's 50-seat theater, actors Barbara Grant and Stu Klitsner are like peas in the proverbial pod.
They are appearing in Tony winner Joe DiPietro's "The Last Romance," a plunge into mature, mismatched love.
After just two weeks of rehearsals, they are completing each other's sentences, laughing conspiratorially over unfinished jokes and quoting lines from the script without conscious recognition of how the play has wormed its way under their skins.
"The play is funny and witty, with one-liners, yet I'm finding there's another layer," Grant suggests.
Klitsner introduces the character Grant plays as "the most beautiful woman my character, Ralph, has seen in 20 years."
"Rafael Bellini!" Grant corrects, "that is how he introduces himself. He's a retired railroad worker whose claim to fame is the fact that he auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera Company. He loves to burst into song and 'boom!' he's right out there."
The two actors have thrilled local theater audiences in previous onstage pairings.
"I've been his daughter, his lover and his wife," Grant laughs.
Adds Klitsner, "The challenge is thinking of her (in this play) as someone I don't really know. Somehow, through the years, I've always felt like Barbara could be my wife. Since we're not together, it adds excitement because it's a connection that remains incomplete."
Klitsner, blissfully married for 51 years to his late wife, Rhoda, is 86. Grant, married for 42 years and counting, is 66.
"Mature love is a combination of attraction and someone you enjoy," Klitsner says. "It's touching each other, embracing and an 'I can count on this person' feeling."
Grant, agreeing, defines romance -- the play's central theme -- as the aspect of love that surprises.
"It's the part that's less intellectual, more spontaneous. As you age, you think the chances are less and less," she explains.
Her character carries a sadness, a resounding 'what if?' in her heart. Klitsner's operatic bombastic working-class senior on the prowl -- with attached, protective sister in tow -- is curmudgeonly.
"Stu defines the generous actor, but he can pull off the cad-like characters, even though they're not him," Grant says. "He's genuine and has a way of suggesting things that are spot on."
Shifting to a more thoughtful, serious subject, the two actors acknowledge the large hole left by the closing of the Willows Theatre Company. In mid-August, the 35-year-old company declared bankruptcy and abruptly ended operations.
Grant, who at one time was Willows' development director in addition to appearing onstage, said the nonprofit was often "on the edge" but had managed to survive.
"It was a combination of economics and some overextending. Having three different venues made a perfect storm of negative factors hit. I think it's a huge loss, but that's true for any large arts group that closes," she says.
Klitsner, who dreamed of becoming a singer and ended up with a double life as a schoolteacher and an actor, says he's thankful for the continuity he experienced at the Willows.
"Besides, I might not have met Barbara without them!" he exclaims, bringing his magical, lighthearted enthusiasm back into the topic.
For Klitsner, acting has given him great friends -- and focus.
"I love the audience and meeting them after the play. I don't feel I can know what life is about until I meet everyone in the world," he says. "Everybody is interesting to me in their own way."
Grant, who came to acting in midlife, says she has never experienced the desperate, go-anywhere, do-anything urge to perform.
"But it's stimulating to memorize lines, meet five strangers, create a relationship, pull out the best ... then it's over and done with. Like a painting: you do it, do it, do it, then say 'aah!' and move to your next painting," she concludes.
Klitsner, watching his good friend admiringly, says, "There are so many things you have to attend to in a day. At the end, you can feel like you haven't accomplished anything. But with a play, in two hours, you've really done something."
Diablo Actors' Ensemble's "The Last Romance" runs through Oct. 6. Tickets and information are online at http://www.diabloactors.com/Season.html