Utah Arts Review » Blog Archive » A Handsome Cast Elevates the Sweet Humor and Late Fall Romance of PTC’s “Fireflies”

Joy Franz as Eleanor and David Manis as Abel in Matthew Barber’s fireflies at the Pioneer Theater Company. Photo: CTP

Like a warm summer breeze, fireflies slips into Pioneer Theater Company’s season as a break between loud and sharp exclamation musicals Something rotten! and Hello Dolly!

fireflies could you 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 highlighted by a steady beat of laughter as the audience relaxed into the sweet story of a romance belated, which takes place in a small town in Texas near the bend. 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 turned upside down when vagrant Abel Brown shows up and offers to renovate his nearby rental property in exchange for housing.

What brings these mismatched souls together? We can easily guess, because the tropes are so familiar: the school godmother in her own way meets a mysterious free spirit; misunderstandings ensue; the strange couple learn from each other and fall in love.

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

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

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

David Manis balances swagger 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 revealing hesitation here and there—that the audience can share Grace’s suspicions.

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

The scenario of fireflies tends to say 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 beautiful. Paige Hathaway designed Eleanor’s cozy and inviting kitchen, where all the action takes place. Brenda Van der Wiel’s costumes also deserve special mention, as do the dress choices – Grace’s pastel pink church suit and royal blue capris; Eleanor’s cool retro dress and sturdy shoes; Abel’s increasingly neat jeans and shirt ensembles reveal without a word the personality of those who wear them.

fireflies through April 16 at the Roy W. and Elizabeth E. Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theater. pioneertheatre.org.

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