The play “Fireflies” by Matthew Barber, now showing at The Public Theatre in Lewiston, chronicles the “coming-of-agelessness” for Eleanor Bannister, an authoritative retired educator and the “most respectable woman in Groverdell, Texas.”

Under the deft direction of twice-Tony-honored Judith Ivey, humor flourishes in clever dialogue, lively retorts and a fast-paced plot spun powerfully by the strong cast of professional actors.

It is late summer in the sleepy small town and the heat is oppressive. As fireflies dance their mating ritual in the night sky, figs should now have been harvested and preserved; end of the season blackberries promise one last delicious cobbler. But Eleanor, wonderfully embodied by Caitlin O’Connell, is struggling with retirement and has not quite reconciled herself to this new chapter of her life. Her 40-plus years in the classroom still define her as she corrects the gaffes in grammar and syntax of those around her, a practice she is unable or unwilling to change. “I would be lying in a pool of blood, not laying . . .”

Never married and an only child, she has inherited a house and small farm on which there is also a “rental” cottage, as Eleanor calls it. Never used, it was built years earlier by her father and meant as a honeymoon cottage for Eleanor. It has fallen into disrepair from neglect, the result of Eleanor’s avoidance of the fact that her parents, long since dead, still preoccupy her existence. And lately, as she begins to see lifelong friends passing away, she has become more withdrawn from the tight-knit community.

Her well-meaning but nosy and loquacious next door neighbor, Grace Bodell, played to the hilarious hilt by Charlotte Booker, attempts to lift Eleanor’s spirits and encourage her to break out of her lethargy, but generally succeeds only in irritating Eleanor. Along with unsolicited motherly advice, her gossip and exaggerated perspective of the small-town goings on engender laughter from the audience but only exasperate Eleanor.

Charlotte Booker, left, played by Grace Bodell, sits with Eleanor Bannister, played by Caitlin O’Connell, at Eleanor’s kitchen table, the sole setting in The Public Theatre’s current production of “Fireflies.” Photo by The Public Theatre

The play is set entirely in Eleanor’s kitchen. The subtle wonders of the Texas landscape counterpoint Eleanor’s drab place in it; from scene to scene beautiful changes in light from the stained-glass window over her kitchen sink provide the color that her life is lacking and that she fails to notice. We see ubiquitous clutter throughout. Clinging to bygone days, Eleanor is reluctant to disturb the past. Her overgrown fig trees have been plucked by mockingbirds before she can harvest and put them by; her time-worn kitchen and porch evidence the stagnation of her life force. Even fixing the hole in the roof of the rental cottage caused by a recent storm is more than she can contemplate. To her neighbor, Grace, she begrudgingly acknowledges her plodding, humdrum routine; for five years, she says, she hasn’t made herself anything for dinner except breakfast cereal. She also admits to feeling she has “lost herself” since retirement; that she has joined the dinosaurs as a museum artifact.

Though the cast consists of only four characters, much of the town’s population is revealed to us through the dialogue and interactions of the players. We hear of the librarian who closes the library abruptly in inclement weather, a friend who has not yet returned a casserole dish, the local boy who does yard work, and the local HVAC repairman who should be called to fix the AC. Everyone in town, it seems, either grew up with Eleanor or attended school under her tutelage.

But Grace is concerned about Eleanor’s recent eccentricities. She “observed” Eleanor the day before, returning from her rental cottage scandalously dressed only in a nightgown. She makes certain to let her know there is a “drifter” in town. One Abel Brown is going around seeking odd jobs from primarily single older women. Normally Grace would have expected Eleanor to run such a person off her property, or even out of town. But now she is concerned that if the drifter approaches, Eleanor might fall prey. Grace is certain the drifter is a con man, gigolo and perhaps even a stalker.

Here, Eleanor sends Grace into near apoplexy, stating she has already hired Mr. Brown to fix the rental cottage roof; that she had driven with Mr. Brown in his truck over there to assess the repair dressed in the nightgown Grace had seen her in as she walked home. And to top it off, Mr. Brown is coming to dinner to collect his pay that evening. She emphatically insists that will be the end to their relationship. If that is the case then, Grace sarcastically inquires, why he is currently mowing her lawn, as we hear the clatter of the machine in the yard.

In the next scene, we see Abel playing “Beautiful Dreamer” for Eleanor on her father’s old violin. He has brought take-out dinner with Dixie Cup ice cream for a hot summer night dessert. His attentiveness to Eleanor is obvious.

Abel Brown, left, played by John Hutton, plays violin for Eleanor. Photo by The Public Theatre

Abel Brown, played by John Hutton, is perfectly and convincingly engaging as the glib, confident, smooth-talking nomad whose “aw shucks” persona belies the fact that he is sharper and more erudite than he lets on. Cocky and persuasive, he has already convinced “Miss El” to hire him to fix the rental cottage roof for a nominal fee. He has charitably mowed the lawn, and now suddenly is spending time with her. At arms’ length, Eleanor sizes up “Mr. Brown,” firmly staking out her “I’m fine where I am” position as he tries to inveigle his way to a more permanent relationship, repairing her air conditioning and offering to improve the value of her modest holdings. Why, he proposes, she could rent the cottage, after some additional repairs, or move in there and rent the main house, following a makeover to that abode.

Sparks fly as Eleanor’s stolid sensible side clashes with Abel’s rhythmic view of life. Witty dialogue wrings wry humor from their debate as each argues a perspective at odds with the other. El prefers predictability and comfort in what she knows; Abel is, for some mysterious reason, drawn to risk-taking and a life of adventure, living out of a camper towed from place to place behind his pickup truck. Slowly Abel wins El’s trust and affection by his attentive pursuit. Eleanor has succumbed to his charm and persuasion.

A stunning dream sequence frees Eleanor from her place of reluctance and she suddenly seems liberated from her rigid, conservative existence. But suddenly Grace’s dire warnings appear to be borne out as Eleanor finds a cryptic note from Abel stating, “Gone back to Oklahoma, something came up . . .” And not before cashing the two $1,000 checks Eleanor had given him as an advance for building materials and repairs.

Enter Groverdell Police Officer Eugene Claymire, played by Johnathan Fielding, to take Eleanor’s statement about the alleged theft of her money. Eugene is a former pupil of Miss Bannister. Eleanor differentiates between students and pupils; students are there to learn, pupils are there to get out. Eugene, she recalls, is best remembered for setting off firecrackers in the faculty bathroom. Eugene acknowledges he was not a scholar; he knew he wanted to be a policeman since he was a boy. But he does show great respect for Miss Bannister in his ability, still, to recite lines from Coleridge he memorized in her class. He also reminds her that he saved the Whittaker twins from drowning at the graduation picnic. This gives Eleanor pause to reconsider her assessment of “pupils.” As Eugene states, “We aren’t all here to get the answers right.” This statement becomes the pivot point for Eleanor to gain insight that people are complex and their value isn’t a function of scholarly achievement.

Eugene reveals what his investigations of Abel, starting from when he first arrived in town, have uncovered. Shocked and angered by what she learns, Eleanor is loaded for bear when Abel unexpectedly returns with gifts of blackberries. Confronted and cornered he fights for his honor and explains his absence. He will not give up, he says, because he feels something for Eleanor. Finally convinced of the truth in his explanation (not revealed here to prevent a “spoiler”), Eleanor relents. A new “contract” is negotiated. Eleanor confesses she too felt a sense of “lighting up” since he arrived out of “nowhere” and disrupted her life. Abel rebuts that he is not from “nowhere,” he is from Oklahoma.

Each has finally come to a place late in life where they can make a start. Abel explains that every love story has the exact same start — two people finally meeting.

Pictured are John Hutton as Abel and Caitlin O’Connell as Eleanor in “Fireflies.” Photo by The Public Theatre

The poignancy and the honest realization of the randomness of Eleanor and Abel finding one another is concluded with sunset and a beautiful display of fireflies.

“Fireflies” remaining performances at The Public Theater are this weekend at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, May 9-12, as well as matinees at 3 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.

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