Regional Reviews: St. Louis
That pastor's wife is not without a certain amount of power, though she exists mainly in the shadow of her husband's fame: ghost-writing all his sermons and political speeches, and even coaching him on his delivery. At rise, Olivia Grace (played with a kind of stark beauty, and the occasional madness of double-vision, by actress Zahria Moore) has already written her husband's eulogy for the four girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, in September of 1963. And in Fireflies' first scene, she's stuck at home, listening to a favorable report on the radio about that particular speech. And then she experiences a writer's worst enemies: jealousy and resentment.
Andrea Frye directs with great humanity, finding a grueling undertone, even with some predictable uplift at the end. And stylish, passionate Eric Connors co-stars in this two-person, 90-minute show, giving Ms. Moore just the right amount of dramatic opposition. Though one grows weary of the popular disregard for Black men. But Fireflies is nearly all about Olivia.
Like the Black women mathematicians in the movie Hidden Figures or the suburban white woman who unexpectedly grasps the meaning of racial justice in The Help, Olivia also becomes a hidden figure of the civil rights movement–until the Black church even seems to become a kind of homunculus within her, the bombs going off in her head as though the sanctuary existed inside her.
The sense of internal explosions comes with such excruciating regularity and naturalism that we wonder if Olivia, or even the actress, might keel over with a brain hemorrhage. Maybe not all Southern fiction is magic, and maybe it's not all metaphorical circles of blood and fire. But this actress and this production of Fireflies transcend the merchandising of martyrdom in a crimson blaze.
There's a real sense of isolation and self-denial on stage, where Olivia's world consists simply of her husband, the church, and the people who call for him through an old rotary phone–and the fiery sunsets every night as she waits for him to return from protest marches, and from consoling the families of the victims of racial violence.
There's also a cruel intervention by the FBI, a suggestion that she might escape all this through adultery, and the hope of running off to New York to meet a mysterious woman. Like anyone else, her personal battle-line, between the flesh and the soul, is fluid and shifting. It's the nature of drama.
But the existentialism of her life is finally ripped away, in a way that seems even worse. And then the outcome is still a bit uncertain, though at least she finally gets one of those transcendent moments of recognition to call her own.
Fireflies runs through February 27, 2022, at the A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre, on the campus of Washington University, St. Louis MO. For tickets and information, please visit www.theblackrep.org.
* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association