Ah, still another tale of a woman thawed by a romantic outsider, following the pattern of dramas like “Picnic,” “The Heiress” and “The Time of the Cuckoo.” Having its world premiere at Long Wharf, “Fireflies” gently prods the formula in a production rife with charm and believability. Its romance between wary members of an older generation is keenly observed.
It’s a slight work, surely, yet its detailing of small-town fears and mores is admirable as is its sympathetic handling of people who are seemingly stuck in their lives. Playwright Matthew Barber has a knack for works about twilight, having also written “Enchanted April,” in which four dissatisfied English women holiday in romantic Italy.
“Fireflies,” which takes place in 1995, is based on a novel by Annette Sanford. Its heroine, the “woman of a certain age” about to break out of her shell and embrace a newfound future, is retired Texas schoolteacher Eleanor Bannister (Jane Alexander, wonderful in a skilled, unsentimental performance). Her best friend and sometime annoyance is the snoopy Grace Bodell (Judith Ivey, squeezing laughs with her exquisite timing).
Eleanor was a tough teacher; even now, she’s not above correcting people’s grammar and is only quietly pleased at a poetry recitation by former pupil-turned-policeman (the amusing Christopher Michael McFarland). Her life is bounded by such tasks as sterilizing bottles for the preserves she gives as holiday gifts.
Enter the spider, mysterious stranger Abel Brown (in a winning performance by recent Tony nominee Denis Arndt). Is he a drifter or a stalker? He doesn’t so much as seduce Eleanor as meet her on her own terms, their relationship based on frankness. Besides, who can resist his rejuvenating “The brain cells will fire up again when you need them”?
Awakened in both is a sense that life isn’t over until it’s over (thanks, Yogi Berra). As the strains of “Beautiful Dreamer” waft through the evening, we’re faced with the hope of turning routine into excitement.
“Fireflies” is comfort food, told without sweetening. Under Gordon Edelstein’s direction, character nuances transcend skimpy situations. Edelstein recognizes that not giving up makes these people heroic, even in small ways.
Jess Goldstein’s costumes and Philip Rosenberg’s lighting reflect small-town Texas blandness. But Alexander Dodge’s set is incomprehensible: Why the removal of the back wall in Act Two? Why the plants hung so high they must be out of reach? Why the sudden appearance of a yellow easy chair—did Eleanor redecorate?
No matter. “Fireflies” does not try to be profound. Its slice-of-life study of characters seizing a second chance makes for a diverting evening.