The smiles that stretch from ear to ear on audience members at the Long Wharf Theatre’s world premiere play, “Fireflies,” are in clear evidence throughout most of Matthew Barber’s touching, funny and beautifully acted new drama. The New Haven theatre currently has the prime example of a community crowd-pleaser on its hands.
Based on the novel Eleanor & Abel by Annette Sanford and leisurely directed by Gordon Edelstein, “Fireflies” is set in South Texas, 1995. It takes place in the cluttered kitchen of Eleanor Bannister (a luminous Jane Alexander), a lonely, former schoolteacher long past her prime and keeping the family homestead alive in the absence of her parents. She is joined by her intrusive neighbor and friend, Grace Bodell (Judith Ivey, delicious), who babbles on about local gossip and, in particular, the mysterious stranger currently prowling the town. When that stranger, Abel Brown (Denis Arndt), suddenly appears on Eleanor’s property offering to fix up the “honeymoon cottage” she owns, the stage is set for that all-too-familiar story of the virile stranger opening up the sheltered life of the virgin spinster.
No, Mr. Barber isn’t breaking any new ground here and “Fireflies” will never be confused with “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”. Nor would it want to be. “Fireflies” is the kind of play that deals with adults pretty much forgotten in contemporary drama. Three of the drama’s four characters are 60 years and older and while watching you suddenly realize how novel it is to see this age group represented at all let alone in an autumnal romance like “Fireflies”. And while it could be argued that the play wraps up a little too neatly by curtain, I doubt you’ll get many complaints from theatergoers looking for the reassurance of a pleasantly old-fashioned entertainment like this.
It’s been far too long since we’ve seen the great Jane Alexander on stage and most of the joy of “Fireflies” lies in the sublime performance by the Tony Award winning actress. She brings years of experience to the role of Eleanor imbuing the character with her own ample supply of grit and humanity. Judith Ivey is sheer delight as her neighbor, a woman probably every bit as lonely as Eleanor but one much more willing to confront that fact. Denis Arndt, who most recently won praise for his Broadway performance in “Heisenberg”, has the craggy charisma and low-key charm that makes you understand Eleanor’s cautious but growing attraction. In his one scene as the town’s good-old-boy policeman, Christopher Michael McFarland belies the stereotype to create a funny, engaging character.
Alexander Dodge’s busy, lived-in kitchen has all the bells and whistles but features some odd touches, too. As arranged, Eleanor would apparently need a cherry picker to water the hanging plants that dangle some twenty feet above her and there’s a dramatic set change in act two removing the kitchen’s back wall that makes little sense in the context of an otherwise realistic drama. Jess Goldstein’s costuming gets the older characters exactly right, however, and Philip Rosenberg’s warm lighting design ably suggests Texas in July. Even with a few reservations, you are not likely to find a more charming play than “Fireflies” this season.
“Fireflies” continues at the Long Wharf Theatre through November 5. For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at 203.787.4282 or visit: www.longwharf.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.