Thursday, October 19, 2017

CT Theater Review: Fireflies -- Long Wharf

Judith Ivey and Jane Alexander. Photo T. Chalres Erickson
Fireflies
By Matthew Barber, based on "Eleanor and Abel" by Annette Sanford
Directed by Gordon Edelstein
Long Wharf Theatre
Through Nov. 5

By Lauren Yarger
Here's a play that reminds us how great theater can be. Matthew Barber's Fireflies, getting its world premiere at Long Wharf Theatre, directed by Gordon Edelstein, is an absorbing piece of storytelling with vibrant characters experiencing a wide range of human emotion.

The star-studded cast features Jane Alexander as  retired school teacher Eleanor Bannister, whose lonely life rivals the Texas weather for being long and dry. Until one day, when drifter Abel Brown (Denis Arndt) enters the picture, however. The man inserts himself in Eleanor's rental cottage in exchange for doing some renovations on it-- and into her heart as well. Friend Grace Bodell (Judith Ivey), who keeps a watchful eye on her neighbor's comings and goings, is suspicious of Brown, whom she believes to be a con man after Eleanhor's money -- and perhaps more. She calls in Eleanor's former student, Eugene Claymire (Christopher Michael McFarland), now a Groverdell police officer, to help out.

When some information about Abel's past comes to light, Eleanor has to admit that Grace's suspicions might be right, but she can't deny the feelings that have left a warm glow in her heart.

Everything about this production, based on the novel "Eleanor and Abel" by Annette Sanford,  is perfection. Alexander gives a moving portrait of a woman who is afraid to hold on to the hope of happiness after spending so many years convinced it would never come. She's slowly felt the life go out of her since losing her parents 18 years ago and Abel might just be the spark that can reignite it.  Ivey is a hoot as the non-stop talker, busybody neighbor with a heart the size of Texas. At first annoying, she wins us over and makes us wish we had a neighbor like this who would come over on the pretense of borrowing a can of pineapple so she can have an excuse to talk our ear off.

Arndt creates an enigmatic character who we never are sure we can trust, but he gives back as good as he gets and shows enough of Abel's good side that we find ourselves rooting for him. Even McFarland, whose role is brief, captures the audience with the humor of a man confronting a former teacher who didn't like him much as a schoolboy. 

Fireflies is reminiscent of Barber's Tony-Award-nominated play, Enchanted April, in that multiple older characters suddenly choose to approach life differently. Eleanor's cluttered old house (designed by Alexander Dodge) transforms to a home offering comfort. Edelstein expertly uses physical action to convey emotion, and the result is so heartwarming, that we feel the glow of love and hope (as well as see it, thanks to  Lighting Design by Philip Rosenberg, enhanced by Sound Design by John Gromada.)

Fireflies lights up the stage at Long Wharf Theatre through Nov. 5. Performance times vary. Tickets are  $29-$90.50: longwharf.org. Don't miss this one.

Additional credits:
 Jess Goldstein (costume design)

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)

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