A small-town story of surprising romance, Fireflies, a 2017 play by Matthew Barber, will have its Utah premiere at Pioneer Theatre Company on April 1. In contrast with PTC’s last production—the brash, energetic musical Something Rotten!—Fireflies is an intimate, gently funny romantic comedy-drama focused primarily on two characters.
Based on Annette Sanford’s 2003 novel Eleanor & Abel, Fireflies is set in a fictional Texas Gulf Coast town in the mid-1990s. Eleanor (Joy Franz), a retired teacher, lives alone and is beloved in her community, including by her gossipy neighbor Grace (Joy Lynn Jacobs) and her former student Eugene (Tito Livas). After a storm damages a house on her property, a drifter named Abel (David Manis) begins repairing the home while forging an unexpected connection with Eleanor.
Fireflies’ premise may be simple, but its protagonists are all-to-rare in contemporary theater—they are both complex, fully drawn characters in their 70s. Director Kareem Fahmy says he was drawn to what he calls an “extremely delightful” script for this reason. “It’s a great reminder that love is really possible at any time of one’s life if you open yourself up to it,” he says. “This play really does show how these characters dismantle those barriers for themselves.” Barber was interested in exploring how characters with more lived experience approach the new beginnings of love and romance. “Our willingness to open ourselves to change later in life may be just as strong as when we were young, but that willingness is now up against an equally strong pull to not let go of what we had, even if what we had is now only a memory,” he said in an interview with Long Wharf Theatre, where the play premiered.
“Fireflies has all the traditional markings of a beautiful love story but because these two people have found each other later in their lives, it brings a whole other perspective to this fun, funny and touching romance,” said Karen Azenberg, Pioneer Theatre Company’s Artistic Director in a press release.
Leading the cast, Franz is making her PTC debut. She has performed onstage for more than five decades, with Broadway credits including Pippin, Company and Into the Woods, the latter two with Stephen Sondheim. Fahmy called Eleanor “one of these incredibly disarming characters,” describing the role as “intelligent, caustic and funny.” Manis is both a Broadway and Pioneer Theatre veteran who was most recently seen on Utah stages in PTC’s Much Ado About Nothing.
Fahmy, who previously directed a staged reading of The Fifth Domain and a virtual production of A Christmas Carol at Pioneer Theatre Company, wanted to hire a racially diverse cast for this play. Increasing opportunities for theater artists of color has been an important mission for Fahmy. “There [are] all of these barriers in place that prevented directors like me from getting opportunities,” says Fahmy, who is Middle Eastern. He recently created the BIPOC Director Database, a crowdsourced spreadsheet that connects directors of color at various stages of their career with other theater professionals across the country. The database was partly inspired by a conversation with Azenberg, who wanted a simple way to connect with diverse artists outside of the (very white) theater community in Utah. “Hopefully there’s going to be a much greater diversity of people in these directing jobs over the next several years,” Fahmy says.
Though the play does address themes of aging and late-in-life love, Fahmy hopes the play will connect with audiences of all ages. “For a play that deals with love, it’s also dealing a lot with loss and what happens when you get to a certain age where the people around you start to perish,” he says. “There’s a beautiful universality in that.”
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