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Theater Review: "Fireflies"

“Fireflies” plays through January 26, 2020, at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
Photo credit:
Jordan KubatSCR

The loud noises, blood-red clouds and explosions “somewhere in the South” during the Civil Rights era are echoed by interior but equally incendiary personal issues explored in Donja R. Love’s “Fireflies,” playing through Jan. 26 at South Coast Repertory. Lou Bellamy directs.

Charles (Lester Purry), a preacher and Civil Rights leader of a Southern congregation, is more often off somewhere speaking than at home with wife  Olivia (Christiana Clark). Olivia makes her own contribution to the cause by writing the sermons, speeches, and all-too-frequent eulogies for Charles to deliver. They have an outwardly loving, sometimes playful relationship that is not without problems.

Charles drinks too much and has an occasional dalliance outside the marriage. Olivia smokes, writes letters to an unseen woman named Ruby and feels increasingly boxed in by the violence outside that seems to reflect her interior turbulence.

She may be hearing – or just imagining – some of the explosions (the play opens the day after the Birmingham church bombing that killed four children), but they are all too real to her, and the increasing distance she feels from Charles is worsened when Olivia finds that she is pregnant. She immediately writes a letter to God, ordering, then begging him to take the baby back.

But what really haunts Olivia is a long-ago fleeting encounter with Ruby that led to the impossible (at the time) desire to declare herself and live as a lesbian.

Charles, on the other hand, is thrilled at the prospect of new life and someone to teach. Can this marriage survive

“Fireflies” is part two of Love’s projected trilogy “exploring queer love through black history.” Here he highlights black women’s mostly unheralded contributions to the Civil Rights movement and society in general, with special emphasis on gay women of color.

Is “Fireflies” domestic drama or social commentary? The answer is both, and though at times it may seem an uncomfortable combination, it works because of dialogue that sounds utterly human and two spectacular actors to make it sing.

Clark’s Olivia movingly portrays the exhaustion of a woman dying to shed the societal straitjacket she finds herself in. She spends a fair amount of time smoking alone on the house steps, looking at the sky and wishing.

Purry plays the charismatic preacher who seems to have come to expect the adulation he gets in public settings. He has notions about a woman’s place that fit right in with the ’60s, but rankle most women today. Olivia and Charles share history (they met as child sharecroppers), but they no longer share social norms.

Jeffrey Elias Teeter’s projection design and Scott W. Edwards’ sound deserve special mention. Though the sky in the background most often looks angry and red, there are times when a lovely sunset is seen, or a dark evening sky a-glitter with fireflies. These are the times Olivia can relax.

Vicki Smith’s kitchen set design looks oh, so familiar to old-timers like me, and costumes and lighting (by David Kay Mickelsen and Don Darnutzer, respectively) lend the proper ’60s atmosphere.

“Fireflies” offers an absorbing 90-minute exploration of duty, disappointment and longing.

The details

“Fireflies” plays through January 26, 2020, at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

Tuesday through Sunday at 7:45 pm; matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 pm.