Susan Granger’s review of “Fireflies” (Long Wharf Theater)


What a captivating way to open Long Wharf’s Mainstage 2017-2018 season!

The world premiere of Matthew Barber’s compassionate romantic dramedy brings back two great actresses, Jane Alexander and Judith Ivey, plus Dennis Arndt, last year’s Tony nominee for “Heisenberg.”

Set in the mid-1990s in Groverdell, a small town in central Texas, the plot revolves around Miss Eleanor Bannister (Alexander), a steadfast, 70ish spinster. A retired schoolteacher, she’s aware that there’s something missing in her life but she’s not sure what.

It’s summertime – and the air conditioning isn’t working, as her nosy-yet-good-hearted neighbor Grace (Ivey) points out when they’re chatting in Eleanor’s spacious kitchen as she sorts canning jars for the preserves she’s about to make.

The primary topic of their conversation is the curious arrival in town of Abel Brown (Arndt), a “drifter” who has parked his trailer nearby and expressed interest in renting Eleanor’s empty guest house – called the “honeymoon cottage” – in back. That’s the exposition.

Drama crackles when Abel enters. He’s a strong, silent handyman, ready to repair Eleanor’s roof, charging half of what any other carpenter would charge. And he’s mowed her lawn – gratis. His charm is irresistible, particularly when he recalls his first glimpse of Eleanor, barefoot, outside in her nightgown.

But Grace suspects he’s not what he seems, and wary Eleanor, who finds herself romantically drawn to Abel’s companionship, is determined to find out.

When Act II opens, Abel’s abruptly left town with Eleanor’s cash, according to the report she’s filing the local cop (Christopher Michael McFarland). So the tension crackles.

Loosely based on Annette Sanford’s 2003 novel, “Eleanor and Abel,” Matthew Barber (“Enchanted April”) has condensed the narrative, perhaps a bit too much. A transitional scene seem to be missing because Eleanor all too quickly opens her heart and kitchen, discarding the entire contents of her closet along the way. But that’s a minor quibble.

Cleverly utilizing Alexander Dodge’s evocative set, director Gordon Edelstein, who has a great flair for gentle, heartfelt comedy, obviously relishes the concept of love that arrives later in life. His superb acting ensemble packs such a subtle wallop that I wouldn’t be surprised if “Fireflies” moves right onto another venue in Manhattan. So see it here while you can.

“Fireflies” plays on the Mainstage at Long Wharf through November 5. For tickets, call the box-office at 203-787-4282 or online at longwharf.org.