A fine cast lifts the gentle humor, late autumn romance of PTC’s “Fireflies”

Sat Apr 02, 2022 at 12:16 pm
Joy Franz as Eleanor and David Manis as Abel in Matthew Barber’s Fireflies at Pioneer Theatre Company. Photo: PTC

Like a warm summer breeze, Fireflies slips into Pioneer Theatre Company’s season as a breather between the boisterous, exclamation-pointed musicals Something Rotten! and Hello, Dolly!

Fireflies is what you might get if Enchanted April were a sitcom. (Both are from novels adapted for the stage by playwright Matthew Barber.) Friday night’s Utah premiere was underscored by a steady beat of chuckles as the audience relaxed into the gentle tale of late-life romance, set in small-town Texas near the turn of the 21st century.

The story takes place over roughly a week in the life of Eleanor Bannister, a retired English teacher whose world is upended when drifter Abel Brown shows up and offers to renovate her nearby rental property in exchange for a place to stay.

What draws these mismatched souls together? We can easily surmise, because the tropes are so familiar: set-in-her-ways schoolmarm meets mysterious free spirit; misunderstandings ensue; the odd couple learn from each other and fall in love. 

But, aside from an amusing but out-of-left-field dream/flashback sequence in which Eleanor visits a dinosaur museum and identifies a little too closely with the prehistoric creatures, the script largely lets those tropes do the work for it. Occasionally an intriguing idea will pop up. (Why does a discussion of her late parents’ “honeymoon cottage” trigger Eleanor so violently?) But, like the insects of the title, the idea flashes briefly and is gone. Thus, it falls to the four actors to carry the day.

Joy Franz channels the late Betty White’s sass-tinged sweetness in her portrayal of Eleanor. She bristles with indignation whenever she hears the English language being misused, and she endures nosy neighbor Grace Bodell’s nonstop chatter with barely suppressed annoyance. When Eleanor softens, as we know she must, the audience reacts with a sigh of satisfaction.

Joy Lynn Jacobs plays the meddlesome Grace, Eleanor’s best friend by default. The role appears to be written as comic relief, but Jacobs and director Kareem Fahmy wisely lean harder into Grace’s friendly concern for Eleanor. Jacobs always found warmth behind the one-liners. She also earned Friday night’s biggest laugh with her spot-on timing: “There are many things I’d like to say to you, Mr. Brown, but I’m a Christian woman so I’m not going to say them … to your face.”

David Manis balances bluster and vulnerability as Abel. He takes an instant liking to Eleanor and is eager to please her, but Manis delivers his lines with just enough ambiguity—a telling hesitation here and there—that the audience can share in Grace’s suspicion.

Salt Lake City-based actor Tito Livas makes a brief but endearing appearance as police officer Eugene Claymire, a former student of Eleanor’s. 

The script of Fireflies tends to tell more than show, but the moment when Eugene begins to recite a poem Eleanor taught him is a delightful exception, illustrating the lasting impact a good teacher can have.

Pioneer’s production is a handsome one. Paige Hathaway designed Eleanor’s cozy and inviting kitchen, where all the action takes place. Brenda Van der Wiel’s costuming also deserves special mention, as the clothing choices—Grace’s crayon-pink church suit and royal blue capris; Eleanor’s retro-cool dress and sturdy shoes; Abel’s progressively tidier jeans-and-shirt ensembles—wordlessly reveal the wearers’ personalities.

Fireflies runs through April 16 at the Roy W. and Elizabeth E. Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre. pioneertheatre.org.

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