SALT LAKE CITY — “It’s a mating dance,” is how Matthew Barber’s Fireflies describes the habits of fireflies. And, while that line comes later in the play, it sets up the context for everything that happens in this very fun comedy. Pioneer Theater Company’s production, directed by Kareem Fahmy, runs through April 16, and is an absolute must-see. The play is based on the novel Eleanor and Abel by Annette Sanford, and tells the tale of the two titular characters in a little Texas town.
Fahmy’s direction is clear through every moment of the play. What Fireflies is able to capture, that many similar plays fall flat of, is an intense realism. The house on stage instantly feels well lived-in. The characters are fully-dimensional real people. The story feels familiar, not in a predictable way, but familiar to how experiencing real life feels.
Right off the bat, Joy Lynn Jacobs’s portrayal of Grace Bodell is absolutely hilarious. One of my favorite parts of this nosy neighbor is that the story does not put her down for being nosy. Grace is concerned for her friend and her community, and Jacobs does a wonderful job of portraying that. Though he does not spend much time on stage, Tito Livas’s performance as Eugene Claymire was probably the audience favorite. It did not take long at all for everyone around me to warm up to the character and laugh along with his jokes. He was charming and goofy, and a very real resident of the town.
Joy Franz and David Manis as Eleanor Bannister and Abel Brown, respectively, were unbelievably funny. Not only could they do the comedy well, but they also both showed the wide range of emotions felt by their characters throughout the story. Franz’s and Manis’s abilities to portray anger or sadness made their funny moments stand out more, for an even bigger laugh. As played by Franz, Eleanor was a wonderfully relatable protagonist, with a very full, very real life shown on stage.
The attention to detail in Paige Hathaway’s set is almost unbelievable, and I wish I could describe it all, but I would go well over my word limit. I did very much notice and appreciate every little detail, from all the plants in and around the house, to the Texas magnets on a fridge that looks nearly identical to the one my grandma had in the 1990s and 2000s. The color palette of the house is beautiful greens, white, and browns, perfectly offset by the blue sky behind it. It was almost as if Hathaway cut out rooms from a real person’s house that they were still using, and moved it onto the stage.
Brenda Van Der Wiel’s costumes, paired with Samantha M. Wooten’s hair and makeup designs share Hathaway’s attention to detail. Their color palette of pinks, blues, and browns also blends well with the house, while still letting the characters stick out from the world. Each costume complements the others nicely, and some of my favorite details were the collar on Eleanor’s first shirt, and the dirt and wear on all of Abel’s shirts. I do not know if it counts as props or costumes, but even just that Abel had a backpack in one scene (which never got used and was only there to flesh out the world of the play) was a detail that made this production really stand out.
Lighting designer Cha See has a great understanding of how to show both lightning and sunsets/rises on stage. The backdrop lighting was stunning, as it showed each day change with pinks or oranges. One of the first things I noticed on stage was that all the lights in the house were working practical pieces and how they brought the set to life. See did a magnificent job of lighting every part of the house realistically.
Sometimes it is difficult for me to tell what unique traits a sound designer brings to a production, but Micah Maxson went above and beyond with this one. From bird and frog sounds in the house well before the play has even begun, to a cooling system that sounds like running in the kitchen, to the sound of a phone being hung up that is just loud enough for the audience to get the joke, Maxson’s sound design made Fireflies even more beautifully realistic. From where I was sitting, the actors’ mic levels were the most correct volume I think I have ever heard. And I do not want to spoil the show, but there is a moment where the echoes are perfect. (That is all I will say.)
I will admit (and slightly spoil the show), that while the very last moments of the play were beautiful, I was a little confused. A lot of the conversation held by the characters is about the fairly recent deaths of various friends and neighbors. And one of the very final conversations is about an older character driving at night. And then a black curtain covered the sky. As an audience member near me whispered concerns to their neighbor, I knew I was not alone in thinking the comedy was going to end in Abel’s death. I was very glad when it did not.
Fireflies is very funny, and a wonderful story about love and miscommunication. It is well-designed and directed, and so far, my favorite play I have seen this year. I highly recommend seeing it at Pioneer while you still can.