Before finishing Fireflies — which has its world premiere at Long Wharf Theatre Wednesday night — playwright Matthew Barber first took a road trip to southern Texas in 2010 to meet an 80-year-old retired schoolteacher named Annette Sanford, who had written a story Barber couldn’t get out of his head.
The story, called “Housekeeping,” centered on Eleanor Bannister, an older retired schoolteacher in a town in rural Texas — not unlike Sanford herself — living in a house by herself, trying quietly but desperately to figure out what to do with the rest of her life while passing the time with nosy friend Grace Bodell. Drifter Abel Brown enters her life and strikes a spark Eleanor’s not sure she wants to turn into a fire. But will she? What will the rest of the town think if she does?
“It always just stuck in my mind—the three central characters stayed with me, and I kept mulling them around in my head,” Barber said. The short story covered a week in the characters’ lives. Sanford later expanded the story into a novel that followed the same characters for a year. “Then I started thinking about doing a screenplay of a the novel, but I kept coming back to the week.”
So Barber contacted Sanford. “I explained that I just wanted to adapt the first 90 pages of the novel,” Barber said. “I wanted to focus on the turning point,” Eleanor’s big decision.
Sanford was living in Ganado, Tex. Barber was living in Los Angeles at the time and drove to meet her. He ran his adaption idea by her personally. “She was thrilled, first of all, that anyone wanted to adapt her work,” Barber said. “She was completely shocked to have been discovered.”
Visiting Sanford also meant that “I got to see the small town that’s the facsimile of the small town in the story,” Barber said. He got a feel for the place as best he could and put it into his work.
Sanford died in 2012. “She did get to read a first draft of the play and liked it,” Barber said.
But none of that tenacity and care with the author and the real-life version of the town she wrote about meant that he felt like he had to hew as close to the source material as possible.
Director “Gordon Edelstein,” Barber said, “says that I should be saying ‘inspired by’” rather than saying that Fireflies in an adaptation of Sanford’s novel Eleanor and Abel.
The novel, after all, does what many novels do in telling its story; it takes its time, which is precisely what plays, for Barber, can’t afford.
“A novel you can pick up and put down. A play needs to be clicking at high speed all the time,” Barber said. “I needed everything to be happening in dramatic fury — I needed the high stakes that need to happen in theater so people come back after intermission.”
“You need to build structure from the moment the play starts,” he added. “The audience has come there to engage in something.”
This meant raising the volume a bit on the story that Barber had been thinking about for so long, suffusing it with greater comedy, and greater drama. But he didn’t lose sight of his source altogether.
“I still stayed very true to the idea of the novel and the characters,” Barber said. ”The core issue for Eleanor is that she’s reached her early 70s and is now retired and doesn’t know what to do next, She has a lot of years left. And that was the idea that I needed to stay true to.”
And it was in the specificity of Eleanor’s situation that Barber found a universal theme: how to navigate a big turn in life when you come to it, whether you’re ready or not. “That’s the part everyone can identify with — going down one road and then that road ends and you have to decide what to do next. You don’t have to be in your 70s to understand that,” Barber said. “I’ve been in that position many times in my life.” He laughed. “It’s always closing your eyes and jumping off a cliff, because you don’t know if it’s a good choice or a bad choice.”
“It’s about the risk that’s involved with change—it’s scary but you have to do it, and that’s the theme,” Barber said.
At the time of this reporter’s interview with Barber, the playwright was working with the actors to strike the balance between the constraints of a theater piece and the need to get it right.
“It’s somewhere in between realism and romantic comedy. Elements of it are sort of classic battle-of-the-sexes and some elements are realistic,” Barber said. “To the characters, it’s dramatic. For the audience, it’s comedic, but you still worry about what’s going to happen to them…. and that’s what’s fun to explore with the actors. They feel close to their characters and want them to be realistic.”
And front and center in the dynamic of the play is Eleanor herself. “This is the strongest woman in town that everyone looks up to, and suddenly she’s falling apart,” Barber said. In the midst of her decision and her confrontation with Abel, she also finds her relationship with her town changing, from old friends to former students.
“The standards she holds everybody to are unrealistic,” Barber said, and she has to come to terms with that — that and how to spend the rest of her life. “But that’s being human.”
Fireflies runs Oct. 11 to Nov. 5 at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargeant Dr. Click here for tickets and more information.