Fireflies, Without The Fire

 Judith Ivey and Jane Alexander. T. Charles Erickson Photo. 

Judith Ivey and Jane Alexander. T. Charles Erickson Photo. 

It’s early on in Fireflies, on at Long Wharf Theatre through Nov. 5, that retired teacher Eleanor Bannister proclaims: “Certainty is something that you build.” She is standing in her large, sturdy kitchen, a can of juice-packed pineapple and neighborhood busybody Grace Bodell beside her. Bodell chatters on at a mile a minute, doling out gossip in generous portions, then takes the pineapple for a use we’ve yet to figure out.

Twists have yet to be introduced, antagonists yet to be identified. But even then, there’s a weight to Bannister’s statement—because if there’s one thing Fireflies is, it is certain. Certain in its unassuming charm, and quiet, measured humor. Certain in its twang-flecked, fast-flying dialogue. And certain in its overwhelming pleasantness, a sleepy, feel-good, nostalgia-drenched ride that tiptoes on the edge of stale, without completely falling in. 

Written by Matthew Barber and directed by Gordon Edelstein, the play is celebrating its world premiere on the Long Wharf stage this month. But its roots go back farther, to Annette Sanford’s story “Housekeeping” and subsequent novel Eleanor and Abel, published in 2003. Unable to let go of the titular character, Barber spent time poring over both of those works and visiting with Sanford in 2010, as he turned a literary bug into a script.  

 Judith Ivey and Jane Alexander. T. Charles Erickson Photo. 

Judith Ivey and Jane Alexander. T. Charles Erickson Photo. 

Fireflies fits Sanford’s style of writing: buoyant but unhurried, with a sort of homespun wisdom that you have to know firsthand to write. Eleanor Bannister (Jane Alexander) and Grace Bodell (Judith Ivey) are two older women who have come to live alone after the deaths of family members and one husband. Firmly rooted citizens of Groverdell, Tex.—at 1,472 people, it’s one of those places you either leave forever or never leave—the two are neighbors and old frenemies, pushed together by circumstance rather than companionship. They are learning the rigors of old age: lonely, long routines, forgetfulness, and the dangers of letting things slide until one’s life is suddenly an overcrowded mess. It is, to invoke the work’s grand theme, certain in its not unpleasant humdrum. 

Or, maybe not. There’s a stranger in their midst: Abel Brown, a drifter who appears suddenly one day, and stakes out a temporary home by the town’s lake. Just as Barber is taken with Sanford’s prose, so too is Abel with Eleanor’s honeymoon cottage, a small rental unit in her backyard, where her parents lived before they died together in an auto accident. From the moment he sees it, Abel yearns to make it his project, begging Eleanor to let him renovate and stay there. And she, the old lady who is not yet done with this world, must make a decision: Does she let him into her life, or does she tell him to get the hell out?

 Jane Alexander and Christopher Michael McFarland. T. Charles Erickson Photo. 

Jane Alexander and Christopher Michael McFarland. T. Charles Erickson Photo. 

It sounds engaging enough, and it is. At first. But at every turn (and owing to some conflict-averse source material), Barber has a fix that is just a little too tidy. Abel, for instance, is most exciting when we and our dear Texan biddies think he may be a two-timing philandering cheat, but that possibility is too quickly shut down, the audience reassured before it can so much as bite a few fingernails. Alexander and Arndt remain cool to each other; they maintain a degree of distance and tension that never quite melts or builds when it’s supposed to. 

The chemistry is there, it’s just not loud or constant. When there’s a fight, or a doubt, or a moment of trepidation, the stakes aren’t high enough: Eleanor half raises her voice, then thinks better of it. Or she gives into the anger, but finds herself satisfied with a feel-good explanation. Enough jokes revolve around blood pressure medication that we begin to wonder if the whole audience has been slipped some before the show, and cannot risk getting overly excited about anything.  

It’s a drama about old age and new love, sure. But Fireflies is more of a warm but muffled sitcom—down to a script that lives and dies with the laughter of the audience. The year is 1995, but it feels more like the late 1940s, as producers and sound engineers were working on laugh tracks and testing out shows like Mary Kay and Johnny for the first time. Or 1987, when Fox first aired Married … With Children to audiences. 

It’s a funny pendant to Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People on at the Yale Repertory theater: polemical and timeless, challenging its viewers to make complex value judgements. This is a sentimental love story,  where our resolutions are fed to us mushy as Eleanor’s over-pecked figs. A short-lived and surreal dream-sequence, with lights winking in and out and out and in again, doesn’t work because of it. While beautifully executed by Lighting Designer Philip Rosenberg, the intervention feels much too new, and horribly out of place.   

Fireflies is not without its merits.  As Grace Bodell, Judith Ivey is an absolute delight, a fast-talking nudge who endears herself to us against all odds. Is it, as Hartford Courant critic Chris Arnott has already pointed out, odd to see her taking a backseat to anyone after show-stopping performances in Long Wharf’s The Glass Menagerie (2010), Shirley Valentine (2011), and Curse of the Starving Class (2013)—but the role fits, big Texas hair and all.

 Denis Arndt and Jane Alexander. T. Charles Erickson Photo. 

Denis Arndt and Jane Alexander. T. Charles Erickson Photo. 

We are charmed by her ability to slip in and out of Texan witticisms, land consistently on the right inflection, and rock bright cotton dresses. Softie “blockhead” cop Eugene Claymire (Christopher Michael McFarland) surprises us with an impromptu and deadpan reading of Samuel Coleridge’s epic “Kubla Khan,” exposing a character of great heart in the process. 

Alexander Dodge’s impressive set, too, hits the mark. From beginning to end, the entire show takes place in Eleanor’s kitchen, a large room with stucco walls, muted green tile, and polka-dotted curtains with green-and-yellow leafy trim. Time has done to her appliances what it has done to her, everything with a slumped and tired kind of finish. Counters are covered with books and overripe figs, signs that Eleanor is past a point of giving a damn.  

It’s so the right place to tell this story: hinting at the outside world, while never carrying Eleanor out there. With an expandable dinner table at its literal and figurative core, it rings true to something The Most Beautiful Room In New York tried to say, and didn’t get quite right—that some of life’s most important moments happen around a kitchen table, where the conversation fills one’s body as one body fills a house.   

There’s a metaphor there—the happiest, blandest opposite of Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, maybebut we’re not asked to work for it. Ultimately, Fireflies never gets to the bright, propulsive magic of the bugs after which it is named. Instead, it rings true to the fireflies of Eleanor’s childhood, thickly populating the town’s cemetery. Speaking to Grace, Eleanor recalls catching them in glass jars, dancing around for them in the dusky air. 

What she doesn’t say, as she puts a new suite of ball jars on to boil, is that those little lights will wink out, slowly, one by one.  That after the fire is gone, they’re just bugs.