'Fireflies' A Well-Told Story Of Tentative, Late-Life Love At Long Wharf

Director Gordon Edelstein is comfortable in kitchens. Among the varied plays he's done at Long Wharf that have been set in kitchens are Sam Shepard's "Curse of the Starving Class," Dario Fo's "We Won't Pay, We Won't Pay," Willy Russell's "Shirley Valentine" and, just last year, "Napoli, Brooklyn" and "The Most Beautiful Room in New York."

The kitchen in "Fireflies," a new romantic comedy/drama by Matthew Barber, isn't dingy or stained. It isn't a platform for kitchen-sink realism. Created by Alexander Dodge (the designer who gave Hartford Stage the brilliantly colored Russia of "Anastasia" and the vaudevillian killing fields of "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder"), the "Fireflies" kitchen is deep and wide and airy. It gets even airier for the second act, appropriate for a love story, but also for a play where much of the conversation is about home repair.

This kitchen is orderly and well used. It suggests tradition and comfort, with a touch of fussiness and anxiety. So does the play.

When we first meet Eleanor Bannister she is in the kitchen sorting canning jars because her friends in the small Texas town of Groverdell (where Eleanor taught school for decades) will expect homemade preserves from her for the holidays. A retired schoolteacher and a respected member of the community, Eleanor is lonelier than she lets on. She becomes curious about Abel, a "drifter" who has parked his trailer home in the area.

"Fireflies" has a carefully crafted old-fashioned mainstream feel to it. It's the kind of play that half a century ago (before musicals became the only surefire commercial propositions there) would have gone immediately to Broadway, then been made into a Hollywood movie (probably starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy), then toured summer stock theaters for years. It likely wouldn't have gone the regional theater new-play-development-grant route. The Long Wharf has carefully nurtured this new play, with a high-caliber cast and extra rehearsal time made possible by an Edgerton Foundation New Play Award. Yet for all its newness, including that snazzy Alexander Dodge set, this feels like a revival.

Matthew Barber (whose hit adaptation of "Enchanted April" had its premiere at Hartford Stage in 2000, and who based this new play on a novel and short story by romance writer Annette Sanford) writes in the cadences of classic romance. Director Edelstein stages it like a country waltz. There are no challenges and surprises here, just a well-told story of tentative, late-life love.

As Eleanor and Abel, Jane Alexander and Denis Arndt play it cool. Alexander, the statuesque film star, performs with inner and outer grace; she lets the other characters, like her former student Eugene (Christopher Michael McFarland) define Eleanor as snippy or bossy. Likewise, Arndt (fresh from the Broadway drama "Heisenberg") could be more rascally and mysterious than he chooses to be.

The sparks that fly between Eleanor and Abel are purposely subdued. There are stolen kisses, but any grand outbursts in the play are based on angry suspicions rather than unrestrained passions.

The wildest action in this gentle romantic yarn comes from the yelps and squeals of nosy neighbor Grace, played with convincing busybodiness by Judith Ivey. Ivey ruled the Long Wharf stage in one of those prior Edelstein kitchen shows, as Shirley Valentine, and was an awesome Amanda in Edelstein's 2010 production of "The Glass Menagerie" (in both New Haven and New York) but happily plays second banana to Alexander. Ivey has worked up a style where everything she says sounds like she's a stand-up comic delivering the punchline to a joke, yet it's a completely believable tone for her character of nosy neighbor Grace. Ivey gets laughs even when she is not onstage, when we are simply sensing her presence on the other end of Eleanor's landline telephone.

There are a couple of unexpected moments. Lighting designer Philip Rosenberg takes a cue from "Fireflies"'s title for a clever special effect. The Eugene character recites several verses of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem "Kubla Khan." There are a few instances when the play pretends to charge off in whole new stylistic directions, then doesn't.

Romantic tension. Hurt feelings. Protestations and explanations. Reconciliation. Not much is promised by Eleanor and Abel, and all of it is delivered. It's a quiet and uneventful story of two people finding each other. In the kitchen.

FIREFLIES is at the Long Wharf Theatre through Nov. 5. Performances are Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2 p.m.; with added 3 p.m. matinees on Oct. 21, 28 and Nov. 4 and 2 p.m. matinees on Oct. 22, 25 and Nov. 1. Tickets are $34.50 to $90.50. 203-787-4282 and longwharf.org.

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