BWW Review: Stirring Drama FIREFLIES Explodes at OC's South Coast Repertory
In their continued and laudable feat of presenting diverse voices in theater, Orange County's South Coast Repertory is currently staging another stirring new drama, this time from playwright Donja R. Love entitled FIREFLIES, which continues performances through January 26, 2020 in Costa Mesa under the admirable direction of Lou Bellamy.
Set in the Fall of 1963---within the uneasy bubble of the Jim Crow South---this beautifully-acted, engagingly staged, and often heart-wrenchingly presented two-person play introduces us to an African-American couple whose lives---and marriage---are teetering on a rough ledge.
First, we meet timid housewife Olivia (played with superb, emotional gusto by Christiana Clark), whose measured, exterior demeanor conceals a hurting woman, restrained by a plethora of repressed emotions desperately needing to explode out of her societally-dictated shell. She is constantly (and, well, understandably) haunted by her harsh surroundings... an environment filled with rampant, openly-violent racism aimed towards people of color.
It's an increasingly inescapable world where, everyday, news of another lynching or another black church bombing forces her---and perhaps many others like her---to carry on in constant fear.
When the play begins, we observe a modest, lovely home (the work of scenic designer Vicki Smith) that could, on the surface, provide comfortable shelter for anyone living in it. It seems also sufficient in providing refuge from the constant noise happening in the outside world.
Olivia, however, still aches within the walls of this sanctuary, as she finds herself often frozen in her debilitating fear, overwhelmed by the sounds of explosions that instantly distract her from her daily routines.
The audience then wonders... are these explosions real or imagined... or are they ghostly echoes of her life in the South?
Clark's breathtaking portrait keeps this a riveting mystery for a while, helped along by her character's other secretive behaviors, as well as the vividly painted theatrical magic conjured up by the play's projections designer Jeffrey Elias Teeter and lighting designer Don Darnutzer.
In FIREFLIES, the sky---oddly beautiful and always in view---is often seen in hues of apocalypse blood-red, interrupted by bursts of gray-white smoke and sandy-colored particle blasts that accompany the booming sounds of explosions crafted by sound designer Scott W. Edwards. The shiny embers from Olivia's visions of fires and explosions sometimes resemble upward floating fireflies, creating a haunting but glorious scene that feels almost alien and otherworldly, as if set in a fire-scorched dystopian past.
Eventually, we soon conclude that the explosions are representations of Olivia's scarred psyche---the repeated, looping flashbacks of someone suffering from what can only be deduced to be post-traumatic stress disorder. The trauma exacerbated by repetitious horrors and societal demands often manifests this way, especially when the person suffering from it goes at it alone.
Unfortunately, such things just aren't discussed or medically investigated, particularly during this early era, let alone within the female population of the black community. So, as one might expect, Olivia suppresses her inner feelings---and, well, among other things---from her confidently charming preacher husband Charles (an excellent Lester Purry), choosing to promote the simplicity of her surface domestic life and the pleasant rapport they have as husband and wife instead. It's a coping mechanism that seems to be "mutually beneficial" both ways.
But, like most situations that involve surface enhancements, the devastating truths hidden underneath have a way of boiling over.
When the audience first meets Charles, he has just returned home from his most challenging sermon yet---for a congregation in Birmingham, Alabama, the site of another recent church bombing that involved the deaths of four young girls. Charles returns cheerful and even flirtatious, greeting his wife with genuine happiness upon arrival, even after just returning home from an otherwise somber occasion. He sings happily along to the fun tune blasting from the radio and coaxes his wife to dance spontaneously in the kitchen. As one may have expected from a doting wife, Olivia offers her husband a home-cooked meal and a listening ear.
Curiously, we learn that although the very amiable Charles is the public-facing representative that gave spiritual aid to the Birmingham congregation, it is actually Olivia who, behind-the-scenes, has composed his speeches and sermons and has coached him in their specific oration. But due to societal expectations, both Charles and Olivia must stay in their respective lanes, so to speak.
But Olivia's cadence upon reminding her husband of her important contributions to their life suggests that she may finally be ready to let her own voice be truly heard first-hand. Is she finally ready to stop surrendering to fear? Is she finally able to reveal her truths? Or is she ultimately just cracking under tremendous pressure?
And thus begins the slow unraveling of a marriage bathed in deeply repressed resentments and unexpressed true feelings. Fortunately for the audience, both characters have equally jaw-dropping secrets to reveal, which keeps this period play a riveting drama from beginning to end.
While FIREFLIES works as a stand-alone play that explores the harsh realities living in the Jim Crow South, the play is actually one of a trilogy of Love's plays that explores queer love through the lens of African-American history. While that fact might be considered a slight spoiler for one of the play's big reveals, its inclusion and context provides yet another important layer to a character that makes the narrative even more moving and intriguing.
At times heartbreaking and devastating, but ultimately empowering and (slightly) hopeful for future generations, FIREFLIES is a must-watch drama with searing emotions and real-world importance, highlighted by powerful performances from its two talented leads. Clark, in particular, turns in one of the most impressive portraits of a woman suffering trauma I've seen on this stage and I'm hoping to see more of her work in the future.
To ignore this play's modern day reverberations is, of course, impossible, particularly as our nation continues to grapple with extreme political divisiveness and the increased boldness of nationalism and casual/overt racism. Though the trauma induced in today's America may not be as horrifically severe than what citizens of color had to endure back in 1963 (which, in retrospect, is really not that long ago), this gripping play's loud lessons and artistic portrayals still need our collective rapt attention.
* Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ *
Photos by Jordan Kubat for South Coast Repertory.
Performances of FIREFLIES continue at South Coast Repertory through January 26, 2020. Tickets can be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.