Stage Door Review
Letter from Wingfield Farm
Monday, July 4, 2022
by Dan Needles, directed by Douglas Beattie
Douglas Beattie Theatrical Productions Ltd., Player’s Backstage, Stratford Perth Museum, Stratford
July 3, 2022
Editor: “There’s a lot to read in a weekly newspaper”
A one-time event of importance in Canadian theatrical history is occurring in Stratford this summer and it’s not happing at the Stratford Festival. Rod Beattie for the first — and he says for the last — time is performing all seven of the Wingfield plays in chronological order at the same venue. The seven Wingfield plays are the best-selling, most-performed solo plays in Canadian theatre. To date Beattie has played the role of Walt Wingfield about 4800 times.
I am lucky enough to have seen all seven Wingfield plays written by Dan Needles and smartly directed by Douglas Beattie in the order in which they appeared starting in 1985 with Letter from Wingfield Farm, and continuing with Wingfield’s Progress in 1987, Wingfield’s Folly in 1990, Wingfield Unbound in 1997, Wingfield On Ice in 2001, Wingfield’s Inferno in 2005 and Wingfield Lost and Found in 2009. However, I began writing theatre reviews only in late 1999, meaning I have no reviews of the first four of the series.
Thus, Wingfield – The Complete Works, as the series is called by the Stratford Perth Museum which is hosting it, will allow me to comment on the four plays I always wished I could have reviewed. The Complete Works will not only help me but will please the innumerable people out there who may have seen one or two of the plays but never the whole set or those who have seen all the plays and simply want to see them all again but with only a week, rather two or more years, in between. The last time Stratford has seen more than one Wingfield play in a row was back in 1992 when the Stratford Festival presented what it call The Wingfield Trilogy of the first three plays. The Buzz Stop, a popular coffee seller in Stratford still sells a blend named Wingfield Trilogy from that time.
For those new to the series the plays concern Walt Wingfield, a Toronto stockbroker who leaves the rat race of business for what he thinks will be the idyllic life of a farmer. He buys a 100-acre farm near the fictional small town Larkspur, Ontario, in the ominously named Persephone Township. The plays consists of letters about his various adventures written by Walt to the editor of the Larkspur newspaper, who is happy to have a new column to fill out his paper.
What gives the plays their authenticity is that the Needles spent his childhood both in Toronto and on the family farm in Rosemont, Ontario. He also spent two years as the editor of the Shelburne Free Press and Economist, a small-town Ontario newspaper, where he invented the character of Walt Wingfield and first published the character’s reports about his farm and everyday country life from the point of view of an urbanite outsider.
Letters, based on these early letters to his own newspaper, is much more episodic than the later plot-driven plays. Yet Letters does have the general throughline of Walt’s gradual change from the laughing-stock of the township to his tentative acceptance of the community and it of him.
What I particularly noted in seeing the play for the first time since 1985 is its mock-heroic tone. This tone is characteristic of the whole series whose titles allude to such classic works John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound (c.430BC) and Dante’s Inferno (1320), always playing with the question of what is significant or insignificant in people’s lives.
Walt perceives his purchase of a farm as a chance to commune with nature and compares himself with such famous rural philosophers as Michel de Montaigne (1533-92) and Henry David Thoreau (1817-62). Much of the warm humour of the play comes from the contrast between Walt’s idealism and his neighbours practicality. Walt even quotes from Duke Senior’s speech in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, who, upon entering the forest of Arden with other exiles, praises the learning that nature has to offer:
Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life exempt from public haunt
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones and good in every thing.
It’s a joy to experience how Needles introduces his cast of characters, especially if you already know what varied roles they will take on in later plays. The characters Walt meets may seem like a band of eccentrics, but Walt is as eccentric to them as they are to him. When a duck on his farm gets the “wobbles”, Walt wants to take it to the vet but his neighbour says he should just hit it on the head and throw it in the ditch. When Walt’s pigs reach exactly the right weight to sell, he can’t do it. He loves the century-old fruit trees on his land even though they are the first thing his friend would remove to improve the farm. He buys a huge useless aged horse because it reminds him of the majestic draft horses he saw as a boy at the Royal Winter Fair.
Most significant for the action, Walt wants to farm the land the old way with a horse-drawn plow, even though his two horses are intractable. He gets one acre done and thinks it a great achievement, but his neighbours, though they think he’s crazy, are too kind to let him fail and do all the plowing and planting for him when the very last day for doing so arrives.
This event is a sign that as much as Walt makes fun of the rural folk’s ways — their extreme taciturnity, their navigating by landmarks that no longer exist, their drinking, their raccoon hunting — they have other qualities that he only gradually appreciates. We hear the story of Jimmy, a man who immigrated to Canada from Ireland after a tragic event in his life. Letters hints that there is more to these people below the surface. The succeeding plays explore this aspect in increasing detail.
Rod Beattie himself, now 74, used a walker to reach his chair placed centre stage and delivers the show without leaving the chair. In the past Beattie was much more mobile on stage, yet movement on stage was never the defining feature of his performance. That was always his amazing ability to transform himself from one character to another simply through a change of voice and facial expression. This he still does and he still amazes.
In Letters he plays over 14 characters including the dog Spike and keeps them all perfectly distinct. Audience members laughed hearing the name of Freddie before we even meet him, just because they remembered what a great character he is. He’s the man in Persephone Township who has a terrible stutter and a finger in every pie. The stutter isn’t funny because it’s a disability but because it always delays the last word of Freddie’s sentences, a word that is usually the contrary of what we and Walt are expecting.
Indeed, delay is one of Needles’s main comic techniques. Needles can write a sentence in three parts. Part two will qualify part one in an unexpected way, and part three will do so again. This technique works because Beattie is expert at taking pauses, some surprisingly long, and because he has perfect comic timing. Beattie makes Needles’s amusing dialogue hilarious simply by how masterfully he delivers it.
Wingfield – The Complete Works runs at Stratford’s newest theatre, which is not the much-touted Tom Patterson Theatre, but rather the Player’s Backstage, an open-air stage behind the Stratford Perth Museum that opened on July 30, 2021. The rustic stage with corn fields behind it is the perfect setting for the Wingfield plays. The theatre seats 200 but with virtually no advertising, Letters played to a crowd of 231. So word is out. The Wingfield plays have taken their place among the classics of Canadian drama and Rod Beattie is a national treasure. There’s no more you need to know. If you missed Letters, the other six plays are coming, one each Sunday until August 14. They are all free-standing plays, so be sure to catch at least one.
• July 10: Wingfield’s Progress
• July 17: Wingfield’s Folly
• July 24: Wingfield Unbound
• July 31: Wingfield On Ice
• August 7: Wingfield’s Inferno
• August 14: Wingfield Lost and Found
Photo: Rod Beattie as Walt Wingfield, © 2010 Ian Jackson; Rod Beattie in Letter from Wingfield Farm at Player’s Backstage, © 2022 Stratford Perth Museum.
For tickets visit www.stratfordperthmuseum.ca.