Long Wharf Theatre
“Fireflies,” Matthew Barber’s utterly delightful world premiere play, is currently receiving a pleasurable production at Long Wharf Theatre. Starring two of our theatre’s most esteemed actresses, Jane Alexander and Judith Ivey, “Fireflies” is a romantic comedy (adapted from a novel by Annette Sanford) that explores relationships that occur later in life and it is truly a treat to watch.
Playwright Matthew Barber focuses specifically on Jane Alexander’s character, Eleanor Bannister, and how she comes to deal with a stranger (played by Denis Arndt), who takes a liking to her. Barber is a wizard at writing funny lines (most of which are delivered by the invaluable Judith Ivey), but “Fireflies” is also a warm and thoughtful play and one that proves to be enormously endearing. “Fireflies” at Long Wharf Theatre is a show that one can really embrace and, whatever its future, it makes for a lovely night out at the theatre.
“Fireflies” takes place in the kitchen of Eleanor Bannister (the Jane Alexander character) and the play is blessed to have both Alexander and Judith Ivey in its opening scene. On scenic designer Alexander Dodge’s lovably appropriate set, the two women essentially discuss local gossip and, most especially, the appearance of a “drifter” who has unexpectedly arrived in the town. Right from the beginning, it is apparent that Matthew Barber has a gift for writing fascinating dialogue and characters and both actresses are truly sublime.
As the lead character Eleanor Bannister, a retired school teacher, Alexander portrays a woman who has essentially closed up. There is talk that she took care of both of her parents before they died and, though she has had relationships in her life, she lives alone and the possibility of a romantic attachment seems, initially, somewhat remote. Without giving too much away, it is the sudden appearance of the aforementioned “drifter” in the town who manages to change all that. Playing this character, named Abel Brown, the excellent Denis Arndt proves to be the perfect (if still mysterious) foil to Jane Alexander’s Eleanor Bannister, and their scenes together are pretty great, capturing the sense of hope and uncertainty that occurs when two strangers meet.
Without spoiling any of the surprises in “Fireflies,” it is safe to say that romance is most definitely in the air. And while Jane Alexander and Denis Arndt make a most interesting pair, “Fireflies” is really stolen by Judith Ivey, as Alexander’s nosy neighbor and friend, Grace Bodell. Ivey is a masterful comedienne, with the ability to make the most out of all the delicious lines that the playwright has given to her. And while Ivey plays her role to the hilt (including delivering one real zinger in the second act which stopped the show cold at the performance I attended), she is much more than just a stock character. Indeed, Ivey endows her role with an ideal flair and individuality, as well as perfect comic timing. She is a real gem.
There is a fourth character in “Fireflies,” who makes an appearance at the beginning of the second act: the fine Christopher Michael McFarland plays the sheriff in town, Eugene Claymire, who also happens to be a former student of Jane Alexander’s. McFarland doesn’t have a great deal of stage time, but, like his fellow actors, he certainly makes the most out of his role and he possesses the ability to win welcome laughter.
Director Gordon Edelstein has staged “Fireflies” with the lightest of touches and he works perfectly with the playwright in fashioning an unconventional romantic comedy. It should be noted that the costume design by Jess Goldstein and the lighting design by Philip Rosenberg are entirely first-rate and fit the play beautifully. Matthew Barber’s “Fireflies” at Long Wharf Theatre is just the right length, neither too short nor too long, and, thanks most especially to an ideal cast, it is almost guaranteed to send you out with a big smile on your face.
“Fireflies” continues performances at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, CT through November 5, 2017. For tickets, please visit www.longwharf.org or call the box office at 203-787-4282.
Photo: (L-R): Judith Ivey and Jane Alexander
Photo by T. Charles Erickson