Sweet, Starry, but Slight: “Fireflies” at Long Wharf Theatre
“Fireflies,” by Matthew Barber, adapted from Annette Sanford’s 2003 novel, Eleanor and Abel, presents us with a sweet but slight tale of romance between a man and a woman in later life. Gordon Edelstein, directing Long Wharf Theatre’s world premiere production, has lavished a beautifully detailed set (Alexander Dodge) and stunning star power on the play. But even Jane Alexander and Denis Arndt in the title roles, with Judith Ivey and Christopher Michael McFarland providing terrific supporting turns, can’t save the script from caricature and predictability.
Barber’s most famous work, “Enchanted April,” was also an adaptation (Elizabeth von Arnim wrote the 1922 novel), but that piece, set in and around a medieval Italian castle, involved more complex characters navigating more intricately dramatic circumstances. “Fireflies” locates us in a small Texas town–Groverdell, South Texas—and invokes all the regional and late middle-age stereotypes one might expect: Eleanor, a starched spinster schoolteacher, retired and certain that love has passed her by (Jane Alexander, luminous but without enough to play); a nosey, well-meaning neighbor, Grace (Judith Ivey, with her impeccable comic timing); and Abel, a drifter with a mysterious past (a winning Denis Arndt).
Abel is initially the most arresting and unusual of the characters, and he provides what mild surprises there are in the rambling story. But the play’s most dramatic plot device, which Abel gives us, is weak at best and implausible at worst; and towards the end, one grows impatient with the character’s lengthy hemming and hawing.
Amidst its delays and extended expository stretches (the first scene could establish what we need to know in half the time), “Fireflies” does have moments of sparkling dialogue, humorous zingers (mainly courtesy of Grace), and one truly surprising and touching scene. This scene doesn’t involve Eleanor and Abel at all, but rather takes place between Eleanor and Eugene Claymire (a marvelous Christopher Michael McFarland), a former pupil (she reserves the term “student” for bright kids with ambition) who now serves on the town police force. I don’t know how much the best of the dialogue can be attributed to Matthew Barber and how much to Annette Sanford’s novel. But at least Barber has given this scene a well-deserved spotlight, and Edelstein intensifies that spotlight beautifully.
As is most often the case at Long Wharf Theatre, the production values are superb. In addition to Alexander Dodge’s detailed set, Jess Goldstein’s costumes perfectly communicate the characters’ personalities and moods; Philip Rosenberg’s lighting delicately supports the story; and John Gromada’s sound design includes one of Emmylou Harris’s loveliest recordings, Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You.”
The danger here is that “If I Needed You” almost eclipses the script. The brilliant Van Zandt expresses, in a three-minute ballad, the piercingly poignant longing that Barber never quite captures in his two-hour play.
“Fireflies” runs through November 5. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to www.longwharf.org.