Review: 'Fireflies' -- And Great Cast -- Light Up Long Wharf Theatre Love Story

 Jane Alexander. All photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Jane Alexander. All photo by T. Charles Erickson.

The show: 'Fireflies' at New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre

What is it?: World premiere of a play by Matthew Barber based on a novel "Eleanor and Abel" by Annette Sanford

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What makes it special?: The much-admired actors Jane Alexander, Judith Ivey and Dennis Arndt collectively have more Tony Awards, nominations and honors than any cast around.

What's it about?: Miss Eleanor Bannister, a 70ish spinster in a small Texas town,  is a respected woman, completely independent and as constant as they come. No fool, she. No sir-ee. But something seems to be amiss in her life and five years after her retirement she's at a loss to explain her general unease. There are the panic attacks and an overall feeling of being unmoored. Arriving in town is Abel Brown, a drifter/handyman, of about the same age as Eleanor. who manages to convince her to hire him to do some much-needed repairs on her decaying, ironically-called "honeymoon cottage" down the road from her main house. He is immediately drawn to her, and not just because she met him accidentally outside one day when she was barefoot in her night gown, 

Sound like a geriatric "Picnic."  You might think so but this is no steamy melodrama. -- though it is sweltering. After all, it is Central Texas in the summer and Eleanor's air conditioning just gave out. No, this is a very human comedy, directed with just the right comic flair and heart by Gordon Edelstein, and designed with faded naturalness by set designer Alexander Dodge and costumer Jesse Goldstein. Philip Rosenberg's lighting and John Gromada's sound design also complete the homey picture of small town Texas in summer of a slightly different past.

 Judith Ivey.

Judith Ivey.

So it's a sweet love story: In a way. But there are complications. There's a peeking-behind-the-curtains neightbor Grace, a terrific Judith Ivey in the role bringing many laughs to the part -- and one huge one --  all the while keeping the character's genuine concern and good-heartedness  front-and-center, Her job in the first act is to set up suspicions about Able, which are further heightened in the second. 

But love triumphs, right? Well, love isn't easy for any of these folks who have learned after many years to get along by themselves. ASs new relationships emerge, things can get misunderstood. Some revelations are difficult to take in. Circling isn't the same thing as striking. And then there's that general wariness that comes from the adage: There's no fool like an old fool. 

So he IS a con artist: No spoilers here but love isn't easy at any age and when you have a character as cautious, smart and tough as Eleanor, it's going to be hard-won.. And that's one of the problems.

What do you mean? Matthew Barber has taken less that half of Sanford's novel -- actually more of a novella -- and compressed much of the slowly-evolving emotions of the book into a few days and a few scenes.

Well, it is theater and you have to move things along: Sure, but there just seems to be a scene or two missing. There should be more than a single moment -- albeit well-crafted and beautifully played -- when Eleanor's world changes so dramatically. The basics are all there but there's just something short-changed about it at this point in the play's development. Having Eleanor not only fall in love but go on a cleaning spree and suddenly giving away literally all her clothes just seems a bit far-fetched. (In the book her roller-coaster feelings and actions surrounding Abel's effect on her happen gradually, over months.)

But Barber has a keen eye and ear and a special sensitivity in writing about woman seeking independence, love, companionship, and/or understanding. His previous work was an artful stage adaptation "Enchanted April," based on the novel but best remembered for the 1991 film. (It premiered at Hartford Stage in 2000 and went to Broadway in 2002;) 

Again, Barber strikes all the right notes of the way women talk, relate, respond, and dream -- though the dream scene he inserted seemed like a rather clumsy attempt at some lyricism that didn't needed to be added. The poetry is in the simple honesty of these characters and in the wondrous performances of the cast., 

Alexander is wonderful as Eleanor:, ramrod right and showing the steadfast poise of a woman who has earned the respect, if not the love, of her community, yet knowing that something is not right. And did I say she looks luminous and more beautiful than ever? For Ivey, it's another character to call her own. With down-home drawl and perfect comic timing, her performance Is as delicious as Grace's own carrot cake.

Arndt, a West Coast actor who received acclaim last season on. Broadway in "Heisenberg," -- and a Tony nomination -- is a man who can be a believable match for Alexander's Eleanor: forthright, patient, charming (without working at it), but also flawed, too, in an all-too-human way . He has a bit more bark than the novel's Abel, and that's all to the good.

Christopher Michael McFarland as the policeman who is called to Eleanor's home is a delight, too, especially when it is revealed he is a former pupil of hers snd he has something to teach Eleanor, too.

 

 Dennis Arndt

Dennis Arndt

Who will like it? Women. Older folks. Those who admire gentle character studies, good-natured humor and who believe that it's never too late. . 

Who won't?: Those who believe it is too late. Young fogeys.

Twitter review in 140 characters or less: Looking at love from another angle, 'Fireflies' is funny, heartwarming and makes for an enchanting October.

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Thoughts on leaving the parking lot: With Ms. Alexanders lovely white hair drifting to her shoulders, I recalled Jessica Tandy, so often on Long Wharf Theatre's stage, too; and how fortunate for us to have these women of the theater continue to grow in roles that challenge and beguile us as we all age. Here's to more new roles for these grand actresses -- and actors -- of a certain age.

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The Basics: The play continues through Nov. 5 at the theater, 222 Sargent Drive, in New Haven. Running time for the two-act play is 2 hours, including intermission. Information at the box office at 203- 787-4282 and on line at longfwharg.org.

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And what did you think about the production, script and performances....?

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