Sometimes you’re in the mood for a steak dinner with all the fixings and other times you crave a soufflé. If you’re in the mood for the latter, then Fireflies, a play by Matthew Barber, based on Annette Sanford’s novel Eleanor and Abel, receiving its world premiere at Long Wharf Theatre, will satisfy. This lightweight exercise in boy meets girl (both of a certain age), billed as a “Romance,” has all the dramatic impact of, well, a firefly landing on a leaf, but that’s not to say the experience is not eminently enjoyable thanks to a stellar cast. The fact that you know what will happen right from the set-up does not detract from the delight of watching seasoned pros doing their thing under the direction of Gordon Edelstein, and doing it with a lot of style, flair and grace.
We’re in southern Texas – Jackson County to be exact – in the kitchen, compliments of set designer Alexander Dodge, of Eleanor Bannister (Jane Alexander), a retired school teacher set in her ways, a classic old maid (if the term is still politically correct – if not, mea culpa!) who is also the owner of what is called the ‘honeymoon cottage,” an adjacent dwelling she has allowed to deteriorate. Living across the street from her, and keeping close tabs on her, is Grace Bodell (Judith Ivey), a lady prone to the “I don’t want to say anything, but…” mode of conversation. During one of her frequent visits, Grace informs Eleanor that there has been a man “lurking” around town asking about properties, especially those owned by women! This man turns out to be Abel Brown (Denis Arndt), who soon comes calling. Thus, the stage is set for Abel and Eleanor’s relationship to develop, albeit with the requisite bumps in the road (or fireflies in the ointment).
Will Eleanor and Abel finally find true love? Well, what do you think? The play’s resolution is never in doubt, but as some sage (Harpo Marx?) once said, it’s not the destination, it’s the journey that is to be enjoyed, and enjoyable it is. Alexander, Ivey and Arndt, with an assist from Christopher Michael McFarland as Eugene, a sheriff’s officer who once suffered under Eleanor’s tutelage, all give seamless performances, delivering their lines with an admirable pacing and rhythm and creating characters that, well, you simply enjoy being with for the two acts of the play, easily masking the fact that there are some plot points left unresolved.
Barber has given his characters some absolutely wonderful dialogue, often creating little set-pieces that reveal character as they also entertain. Alexander, using body language to great effect, and Ivey are yin and yang, the former clutching her life to her bosom to protect her privacy and the latter genetically inclined to intrude. Their friendship, developed over the years, is a graceful, grudging give-and-take. Their scenes together, as Grace banters and gossips and Eleanor reacts, are little treasures. Obviously, the appearance of Abel disrupts this comfortable, gently antagonistic relationship.
Arndt, playing the destabilizing force, gives a solid performance as a man with a somewhat troubled past who woos the reluctant Eleanor with patience and a lot of handyman expertise. He often lifts his baseball cap and scratches his head as he tries to figure out how best to deal with Eleanor’s prickly-pear personality. McFarland, on stage at the start of the second act, nicely portrays a grown man still under the sway of his former teacher’s stern persona, and his hesitant rendering of the opening lines of Coleridge’s “The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan” is his character’s touching acknowledgement that she has had a lasting effect on him (Eleanor’s response to the recitation is just one of the many one-liners Barber has given his characters that elicit laughter).
There’s a certain sitcom quality to the play – think Golden Girls – so nothing that occurs during the play’s two hours needs to be taken seriously, but that doesn’t mean the evening can’t be enjoyed for what it is, and for the skill the cast brings to making their characters welcome into our lives. It’s a gentle slice-of-life piece that generates a lot of laughter. There are no earth-shattering moments, no great truths to be told, save that on a daily basis little affairs of the heart are being enacted, that for every Romeo and Juliet or Tristan and Isolde there are countless Eleanors and Abels who somehow find their way into each other’s arms.
Fireflies runs through November 5. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to www.longwharf.org.