Jane Alexander, Judith Ivey & Denis Ardnt Shine in Long Wharf’s “Fireflies”

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

By Karen Isaacs

 It’s all about the acting. Fireflies by Matthew Barber which is now at Long Wharf through Nov. 5 is a sweet romantic comedy that won’t break any new theatrical ground. But in this production, the thoroughly likable play is showcasing some of the best actors in the U.S.

Jane Alexander, Judith Ivey and Denis Ardnt are the three main characters. It’s a small

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Photo by T. Charles Erickson

south Texas town and the never married Eleanor Bannister (Jane Alexander) is busy making jam in her hot kitchen while her neighbor Grace (Judith Ivey) prattles on. Grace talks about everything, but she keeps returning to the “drifter” that has been seen around town. She is convinced that he is up to no good and is looking for women living alone like Eleanor and herself for some nefarious scheme.

Eleanor, a retired beloved school teacher puts up with the endless chatter, recognizing that Grace wants news that can be spread. Finally she has had enough and encourages Grace to go home.

Is it any surprise that soon the “drifter” – Abel Brown shows up at her doorstep? He’s an older man and says he has been traveling around for decades.  He tells her that her vacant cottage sustained some roof damage during a recent storm and offers to repair it. After checking out the cottage, Eleanor agrees.

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Denis Arndt. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Soon Abel has mowed the lawn and repaired the broken air conditioner. He brings dinner for the two of them and even plays – not very well – her father’s old violin. Both of her parents died years ago in a traffic accident. He makes her an offer; he would like to stay in the cottage, which he refers to as a “honeymoon cottage” for free while he renovates it for her. She has mixed feelings about the cottage; unsure whether to sell or rent it, but also wishing it would somehow miraculous burn to the ground.

While she accepts his offer to renovate, she tells him he can’t stay in the cottage because of the neighborhood gossip.

Eleanor is cautious but lonely (she had never married) and Grace, who is a widow is also lonely. Grace wouldn’t mind male companionship.

The question of course is, who really is Abel Brown? Is he just a scammer preying on lonely, older women? What is he hiding?

We get the answers to these and more as the play gently progresses. Predictably, Eleanor assumes the worst about Abel when he disappears for 36 hours, Grace isn’t sure if she wants to say “I told you so” and Abel is perturbed by the questioning.

We learn of Abel’s past, but not much about Eleanor’s or even Grace’s. Did Eleanor have a romance that went sour? Is that why she wouldn’t mind the cottage’s  destruction? Is the term “honeymoon cottage” fraught with meaning for her? Her father built the cottage for her.

We don’t ever learn this, but who cares? Sometimes it is more fun to make up our own stories about a character’s past.

What takes the gentle comedy to a higher level is the acting. Jane Alexander is well known both in Connecticut and the US for her talent. Judith Ivey also is well known to both Connecticut and New York audiences. But Denis Arndt is something of a surprise. A great deal of his work has been done in regional theaters particularly on the west coast. His appearance last fall on Broadway in Heisenberg opposite Mary Louise Parker earned him attention and a Tony nomination. I’m glad that he seems settled on the east coast.

Each of these actors develop fully formed characters that you absolutely believe in, from the somewhat “starchy” Eleanor, to the nosy Grace, to the mysterious Abel.

It is a pleasure to see them work – each movement, gesture and facial expression is perfectly aligned to the characters and the situation.

Gordon Edelstein has done a fine job directing these three, plus Christopher Michael McFarland who has a small role as a former student who is now a police officer.

Alexander Dodge has created a set that embodies Eleanor’s kitchen and dining area. Not new or modern, but reminiscent of any old house built in the 30s or 40s and never truly modernized. Jess Goldstein has given us costumes that totally suit each character. Philip Rosenberg’s lighting and John Gromada’s sound contribute to feeling the hot Texas summer.

The title, Fireflies, can have multiple meanings. The tiny lightening bugs are so much a part of rural summer nights, but they also flicker for such brief moments.

If you yearn for a sweet, romantic play, Fireflies not only fits the bill but will enchant you with its fine acting.

For tickets, visit Long Wharf or call 203-787-4282, 800-782-8497.

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

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