If you’re even a casual rom-com fan, the basic plot of Fireflies, a play by Matthew Barber now at Pioneer Theatre Company, should be pretty familiar. You could probably get a good idea of where things are going from just the playbill summary—the narrative doesn’t depart much from the expected beats of an enemies-to-lovers arc. Despite, or maybe because of, the script’s if-it-ain’t-broke philosophy, Fireflies is a comforting, crowd-pleasing success. Sometimes, all you need is a pleasurable, well-told story with characters—who, in one notable way, depart from the expected mold—worth rooting for.
In a small Texas town, retired schoolteacher Eleanor (Joy Franz) lives alone on her parents’ property. (Both her mom and dad died years before the play began.) Though she is a respected figure in the community, Eleanor’s life is mostly a solitary one, aside from frequent, usually unannounced visits from her busybody neighbor Grace (Joy Lynn Jacobs). When a storm damages a roof on her property, Abel (David Manis), a drifter in town, offers to make repairs. While the prickly Eleanor is initially wary of Abel, their relationship slowly builds from distrust to cautious friendliness to an undeniable mutual attraction.
Fireflies stands out in one obvious way—both Eleanor and Abel are in their 70s. Onstage, and in pop culture more generally, it’s rare to see older characters as protagonists, especially in a story about new romance. Eleanor’s fear of aging, which is discussed simply and movingly, is a throughline in the play, including in a funny, fantastical scene where Eleanor imagines herself as an artifact at the natural history museum. The script’s matter-of-fact treatment of mortality adds dimension to the plot’s more conventional elements, and the characters’ ages are both central to the story and no-big-deal—the play reminds audiences that new experiences can happen at any age.
A veteran of the stage for more than five decades, Franz leads the ensemble like the seasoned pro that she is. She is convincing as both a lovable curmudgeon and a lonely, sometimes vulnerable woman unmoored by aging and grief. The story just wouldn’t work without the chemistry between Eleanor and Abel, and both Franz and Manis are adept at portraying the couple’s slow burn—their opposites-attract connection always makes emotional sense. As the nosy neighbor, Jacobs gives a broad, lively performance. She gleefully chews on a sausage-gravy thick Texas accent, wears the hell out of a pink church lady ensemble (the costumes are by Brenda Van Der Wiel) and brings just enough pathos to prevent Grace from turning into a caricature. (Rounding out the cast, Tito Livas plays a small role as the dimwitted Sheriff Claymire, Eleanor’s former student.)
While characters occasionally spout nuggets of folksy wisdom, this intentionally modest play rarely strains to focus on anything more than the characters and their relationships. The appropriately low-key direction by Kareem Fahmy emphasizes quiet, simple moments, which all happen over the course of one week. Like Eleanor’s kitchen, the setting for almost all of the play, Fireflies is unassuming, warm and familiar. For audiences of any age, these characters, and the actors who play them, are easy to spend time with.