Jane Alexander Finds Romance In Long Wharf's 'Fireflies'

Jane Alexander is staying at home for a change. Her onstage home, that is.

The globetrotting, award-winning actress appears in "Fireflies," an adaptation of some writings by Annette Sanford. The play's about a 69-year-old small-town schoolteacher who gets involved with the outgoing 70-year-old carpenter who is fixing her cottage roof.

It's a warmer, more romantic role than Alexander played the last time she was at Long Wharf in 2002 as the imperious Christine Mannon in a rare revival of Eugene O'Neill's Greek tragedy update "Mourning Becomes Electra."

In a phone interview last month, the actress — who won a Tony Award in 1969 for "The Great White Hope," and Emmy Awards for "Playing for Time" in 1981 and "Warm Springs" in 2005 — notes that she hasn't done a play in years. You were more likely to find her on TV, banging a gavel as a judge on "The Good Wife" and "The Good Fight" or getting shot on "The Blacklist."

You could have also found Jane Alexander over the past few decades in such far-flung climes as Thailand, India, Brazil, Peru, Newfoundland, Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. Those are a few of the excursions Jane Alexander describes in her engaging new memoir "Wild Things, Wild Places: Adventurous Tales of Wildlife and Conservation on Planet Earth." In the book, she describes her longtime passions for conservation, birdwatching, helping endangered wildlife and the environment.

The journeys and crusades seem to take place in a whole other world than her acting pursuits, though there is one amusing anecdote in which she uses the image of a shifting forest from Shakespeare's "Macbeth" to describe an awesome image of a "phalanx of grass-covered New Guineans advancing up the landing strip in the Hon Peninsula. "Only in the theater had I encountered fantastic happenings like this," Alexander writes. "But this was real, in secluded mountains on the other half of the world."

Alexander grew up in Boston and had some of her first theater experiences in Connecticut when she was a teenager, as an apprentice at the Sharon Playhouse. She's performed several times at the Westport Country Playhouse. Her lifelong love for the arts, and her articulate defenses of them, led to President Bill Clinton appointing her the chairwoman of the National Endowment of the Arts for four years in the mid-1990s. To this day, "I keep in touch with people at the NEA," she says. "I'm very friendly with Jane Chu, who's been a remarkable chairwoman."

These days, Alexander says, "nature and wildlife conservation is my life." The Long Wharf Theatre has arranged for her to stay in Guilford during the run of "Fireflies" so she has a chance to watch birds.

What brings her back to the stage?

"I have spent a lot of time traveling, but I have not been traveling a lot recently. My husband died in the spring. I've not been able to do a theater piece in a while. The last time was five years ago — "The Lady from Dubuque," at Signature Theatre. Before that was "A Moon to Dance By" at George Street Playhouse" [in 2009].

What brings her particularly to New Haven now?

"I love doing new plays. And I'm very much a fan of the Long Wharf and of Gordon Edelstein" — the theater's artistic director, who directed "Mourning Becomes Electra" and is now directing "Fireflies."

"Doing this with Judy Ivey and Denis Arndt — you couldn't ask for a better cast. There's only one Judy Ivey."

Ivey's a New York theater legend, who's also been at Long Wharf previously as the star of "Shirley Valentine" and "The Glass Menagerie." Arndt received a Tony Award nomination this year for his starring role in the play "Heisenberg." "Fireflies" also features Christopher Michael McFarland, who graduated from the Yale School of Drama in 2009 was seen last year in the Yale Repertory Theatre production of "Cymbeline."

Alexander says "Fireflies" features "a full set, some special effects — it looks very exciting to me." She describes the play as "not anything dour. This is a lot of fun. Reading it, I missed a lot of the humor at first, but it's really in there. I'm grateful for new plays like this, that are about people."

"Fireflies" playwright Matthew Barber says that it was an Annette Sanford short story that initially attracted him. It's a story that Sanford happened to expand into a novel.

"I liked the short story so much that it was hard for me to read that story continued. I thought about adapting it as a screenplay, then realized it was really a play. I focused on the 90 pages of the novel that were an expansion of the short story. The play has a fourth character that I created, so I could go deeper into some of the issues."

Barber's best known in Connecticut for another romantic literary adaptation, "Enchanted April," which had its world premiere at Hartford Stage in 2000 and had a successful run on Broadway in 2003. He's been in New Haven for the past few weeks working on rewrites and attending rehearsals with what he calls a "dream cast" for his play.

"My agent asked me for a copy of the complete script before rehearsals started, but I told him I told him I didn't want to mark it as complete just yet. 'I'm going into a room which is a master class taught by theater veterans,' I told him. 'I'd be stupid not to learn from them.'"

"Working in the regional theater is a wonderful experience," Barber says. "It's a completely different environment from commercial theater. It's the coming together of a specific community, that's solely about the love for theater."

FIREFLIES is at the Long Wharf Theatre Oct. 11 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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