Review: Pioneer Theatre’s ‘Fireflies’ tells tender story of hope, change

Joy Franz, David Manis. Photo: Pioneer Theatre Company

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah, April 7, 2022 (Gephardt Daily) — It’s the middle of summer and somewhat late in the life of Eleanor Bannister, a retired and respected Texas school teacher in “Fireflies,” a play by Matthew Barber, now in production at Pioneer Theatre Company.

Despite her orderly kitchen and strictly disciplined life, an oddly flustered Eleanor (actress Joy Franz) can’t seem to find her usual focus. Something is on Eleanor’s mind, and she can’t quite put it into words, despite her mastery of the English language and her decades of freely offering corrections to anyone who utters a grammatical gaffe in her presence.

Her mood could have something to do with a friendly handyman drifter or grifter — she’s not sure which — and the intoxicating possibility of changing something in her sober, well-ordered life.

“Fireflies” is a beautifully told story about the risks and possible benefits of trusting strangers, intuition, and even yourself — even if it means risking the respect of the community.

Handyman Abel (actor David Manis) is considering taking a risk as well, on a prickly septuagenarian client who seems determined not to trust him, but who will freely offer grammar corrections and who can’t make up her mind about his offer to fix a storm-damaged honeymoon cottage she never got a chance to use.

Still, Abel sees a hint of hidden allure in Eleanor.

Joy Franz, Joy Lynn Jacobs. Photo: Pioneer Theatre Company

Rounding out the cast of four are Eleanor’s nosy neighbor Grace (Joy Lynn Jacobs), who tries to warn her friend about the suspicious new man in town, and Officer Eugene Claymire (actor Tito Livas), who steps in to investigate Abel at Grace’s insistence.

This is a beautifully written and acted show. Franz perfectly captures the fearful yet yearning Eleanor, who is beginning to think of herself as an irrelevant dinosaur. Manis embodies Abel, at once easygoing and on guard, who is either a man of few words or a man hiding big secrets.

Jacobs adds welcome drama and humor as the reactionary Grace, and Livas is the most balanced character, an uncomplicated man proud of his job and able to give Eleanor his perspective on herself as his former teacher and as an adult member of the community.

Paige Hathway’s set, which is Eleanor’s house, offers the perfect background of an old, well-built residence showing signs of neglect. Costumes by Brenda Van Der Wiel illustrate both character moods and the beginnings of self-change.

“Fireflies” is a charmer, which begins slowly and tentatively, but which is over in less than two hours, and leaves you wishing for more and wondering what will happen to the characters you have come to care for. It’s a flower that opens slowly and leaves the patient viewer moved by its full beauty.

Kareem Fahmy directed this quiet masterpiece in its Utah premiere, and you can’t count on a chance to see it elsewhere any time soon.

“Fireflies” continues through Saturday, April 16, at Pioneer Theatre. For theater, showtime and ticket information, visit Pioneer Theatre Company’s website.

“Fireflies” cast, left to right: Tito Livas, Joy Lynn Jacobs, Joy Franz, David Manis. Photo: Pioneer Theatre Company

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