- OnStage Chief Connecticut Theatre Critic / Connecticut Critics Circle
“Maybe change is easier when we’re young because there’s less concern for what’s being left behind.” – Matthew Barber
Long Wharf’s season opener brings us Fireflies, “a world premiere romance” and an Edgerton Foundation New Play Award recipient by Matthew Barber, based on the book, Eleanor & Abel, by Annette Sanford. Romance is definitely part of the story, but this play is not your standard, steamy love affair. It’s a tale of a mature woman trying to find her balance through a bewildering encounter, only to discover that her experience was just what she needed to set her straight. Plus, the treat of seeing stage and (large and small) screen legends Jane Alexander and Judith Ivey in outstanding performances is worth the price of admission: the number of awards and nominations between these two powerhouses is remarkable.
It’s 1995 in southern Texas in the summertime. A septuagenarian, no-nonsense retired schoolteacher, Eleanor Bannister (Jane Alexander) encounters a transient, Abel Brown (Denis Arndt), thanks to her intrusive. well-meaning neighbor, Grace Bodell (Judith Ivey). Abel looks for odd jobs on the road, and wants to fix up Eleanor’s rental property, the “honeymoon cottage”, that’s in her backyard. In meeting Abel, Eleanor realizes that her comfortable life may not be that comfortable; and Abel just may be the distraction to put Eleanor right. Add Eugene Claymire (Christopher Michael McFarland) as Groverdell’s well-intentioned law enforcement officer (and one of Eleanor’s former “pupils”), and Eleanor discovers that Abel may be more of a grifter than a drifter.
Ms. Ivey is the consummate Grace; the role fits her like a kid glove. Grace is a character that could be irritating, but Ms. Ivey instead creates an authentic, hilarious character that the audience adores. There is one particular moment that had the audience roaring, so much so that even Ms. Alexander broke a little bit, a small smile coming across her face. Ms. Alexander is splendid as the practical, discerning Eleanor, as she struggles with her feelings of panic and uncertainty; she too gives a genuine performance to another character who could be perceived as tough and stony. Mr. Arndt is charming and smart as Abel, and it is easy to see how Eleanor would fall for him. And Mr. McFarland is perfect as Officer Claymire, who has more to teach Eleanor than she imagined. These wonderful performances are highlighted by a meticulously-detailed set design by Alexander Dodge; beautiful light design by Philip Rosenberg; and always-adept direction by Gordon Edelstein.
Without giving away too much of the plot, there are elements that feel rushed. I had this problem with Sex with Strangers at the Westport Country Playhouse as well: a strong, independent (older) woman caving in too soon to forgive a man for his wrongs. While it was a fatal flaw for me with Sex with Strangers, it felt more like a necessity to save time for Fireflies. I understand that the plot needs to advance more quickly in a play, but I wish there was more time taken for Eleanor to come to her decision about Abel. There are some trust issues left open, and it felt rushed.
So, who will like it? Hopeless romantics (like my husband); Gen-X cynics who are closet romantics (like me). Honestly, I thought it was darling. Eleanor and Abel aren’t done having problems, but the adventure seems worth it.