8/4/2023 FIREFLIES CenterStage North Theatre
MORE THAN ANSWERING QUESTIONS
Eleanor Bannister is a deep well of contradictions. A retired teacher, she is a well-respected fixture of her small Texas town and local community, but she has edges sharp enough to cut the pages of a new 19th-century book of poems. She has a heart that seems to encompass all her former students, even those who have chosen to settle close to home, but she is painfully alone, her only companion a busybody next door who is more interested in gossip than friendship (despite her protestations to the contrary). She has let her “personal space” accumulate the detritus of her life and let her nearby rental property fall into disrepair.
Into Eleanor’s life comes Abel Brown, a drifter handyman who sees a potential for work in the broken down “Honeymoon Cottage.” Will he be as good as his word, or is he a con man preying on the local widows and single women?
Such is the set-up for Fireflies, a gentle and affecting piece by Matthew Barber (Enchanted April), which carries the twin themes of love after “a certain age” and life as more than “getting all the answers correct.” Marietta’s CenterStage North has mounted a production that really “snuck up” on me, centered by two performances above and beyond the expected level of a non-professional troupe. Lisa Clark, despite her cranky attitude towards her neighbor (played by Cheryl Baer) – who no doubt engenders a bit of crankiness in everyone -- is quick to get our sympathy and concern. Is Eleanor making the smartest choices she possibly can, or is she letting a lifetime of tragedy and disappointment cause her to grab any lifeline, no matter how slippery?
And when we first meet Bob Winstead’s Abel Brown, he has that smooth and friendly demeanor every con man in history has perfected. But then, so has every “nice guy” who chooses a life of travel. The two actors have a palpable chemistry that makes all their choices logical and welcome, and we can’t help but root for them despite the secrets about Abel revealed by the local sheriff (Freddy-Lynn Wlson), a former Eleanor Bannister student who was never the sharpest pencil in the drawer.
The play avoids the pitfalls of most plots centered on romance later in life, particularly a condescending attitude (”Oh aren’t they cute”) that studiously avoids any talk or thought of sex. Here, it’s obvious the attraction is complete, not just two kindred souls meeting by the wayside, but two very vibrantly physical people who kiss first and ask questions later. Will those questions engender correct responses? Well, that’s the point, isn’t it?
Scenic Designer Julie Resh has given us a skeletal set which shows porch activity outside the kitchen that occupies the main playing area. It is a nice choice that uses the Mountain View Art Place wide/shallow playing area well, without giving us an unrealistically elongated room. The set is also nicely cluttered in a haphazard way, not like the too-neat-because-we-have-strike-it-at-intermission pitfall that can too often happen (last year’s Wild Women of Winedale to cite a recent(ish) example).
The lighting is basically a single cue that is effectively simple while giving needed contrast for the final fade to starlit twilight. And directors Julie Taliaferro and Haley Skinner have (seemingly) guided the cast with an invisible hand, keeping out of their way and letting them tell the story.
I am big fan of Mr. Barber’s Enchanted April and Fireflies has a lot of the same virtues (and vibe) – a moody elegance that settles over the audience like a comfortable fireside blanket, characters who surprise and appeal even as they discover each other, and an over-riding appreciation of family and friends. Even the busybody Grace eventually shows a more pleasant side and rises to the occasion of actual friendship.
Fireflies is a perfect way to spend a hot summer evening. All that’s missing is a cold glass of lemonade.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com #CSNFireflies)