Stage Door Review

Wingfield Unbound

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

✭✭✭✭

by Dan Needles, directed by Douglas Beattie

Douglas Beattie Theatrical Productions Ltd., Player’s Backstage, Stratford Perth Museum, Stratford

July 25, 2022

Editor: “Knowing history makes us able to concentrate on making new mistakes”

From 1990 to 1996 when people thought of Dan Needles’s plays about Walt Wingfield, they referred to them as the Wingfield TrilogyLetter from Wingfield Farm (1985), Wingfield’s Progress (1987) and Wingfield’s Folly (1990) tell a richly textured comedic story of how Walt Wingfield gives up his job as a stockbroker on Bay Street, buys a hundred-acre farm in (the fictional) Persephone township somewhere in Ontario, tries to farm the way people did before combustion engines and makes a complete fool of himself. In the process he also makes friendships, creates a community spirit and even finds a life-partner. In marrying Maggie Haddock, Walt, the outsider, truly becomes a member of the local community.

Then in 1997 Needles wrote a fourth play Wingfield Unbound that premiered at the Stratford Festival and all bets were off as to how many more Wingfield plays there might be. As it turns out, Unbound is a transitional play serving as a kind of hinge between the Wingfield Trilogy and the three plays that followed. While the Trilogy has its own narrative arc, the three plays that follow all concern a catastrophe that Walt and the community have to confront. Wingfield on Ice (2001) deals with an ice storm, Wingfield’s Inferno (2005) with a fire at the community’s central meeting hall and Wingfield Lost and Found (2009) with a drought.

Wingfield Unbound continues the theme of the trilogy by showing Walt’s idealism yet again coming into conflict with the realities of the rural community he lives in. On returning to Larkspur one day Walt discovers that the Ontario government is planning to amalgamate several communities, including Larkspur, into larger units. This makes Walt feels that the history of his new home will soon vanish without a trace.

Those who have been following the Wingfield series will know that Walt bought his 100-acre farm in Persephone Township with the intention of getting back into touch with nature and was determined to avoid modern farming techniques and use those of circa 1905. Thus, Letter dealt with Walt’s spectacular mishaps in attempting to plow his land with horses rather than use a tractor. So we know that Walt, unlike his neighbours, has a strong nostalgia for the past.

Unsurprisingly, it occurs to Walt that the township should start a museum to preserve the area’s history with a collection of artefacts and with memories that local residents have of the past. Walt thinks he has discovered the ideal location for such a museum in the ruined old McNab mill in Hollyhock. To his bewilderment Walt finds that no one wants to go near the mill and, in particular, no one wants to touch the heavy millstone that lies half-submerged in the creek below the mill.

The locals believe the mill is haunted by the ghost of the miller McNab who once lived there and that anyone who touches the millstone will be cursed with bad luck. In Unbound, Walt’s idealism does not confront the realism of his neighbours but their superstition. But superstition is as powerful as rationality, and Walt perseveres in vain until he himself, after accidentally touching the millstone, wonders if he could be a victim of the curse. But, as his neighbours point out, the way Walt farms it would be hard to tell whether he had been cursed or not.

The play has a story parallel to Walt’s plan for a museum. Just as Walt is afraid that the community is losing its collective memory of the past, the aged Squire fears he is losing his own memory. He has begun seeing things that aren’t there and he and his friends are becoming concerned.

In a manner more rigorous than in the previous Wingfield plays, Needles relates both the main plot and the subplot to a third story, the legend of miller McNab and what brought the mill into ruin. The miller forbade his three daughters to leave the mill when he became aware that there were young men in the vicinity who took a liking to them. Near the end of the play, Walt realizes that miller McNab was attempting to stop change, even though change is inevitable. Change is also inevitable in aging. In the vivid scene where Walt and the Squire attempt to pull the millstone from its semi-submerged position, the legend, the community’s superstition and the Squire’s new mental state dramatically all come together.

Unbound features what has now become Needles’s continuing cast of the Editor and Walt plus Walt’s new wife Maggie, her brother Freddie, their nephews Willy and Dave, and Walt’s neighbours Don and the Squire. One might think that having mastered these eight voices Beattie would run out of ways to invent new voices. But that is absolutely not the case.

Those who loved Needles’s depiction of a typical meeting of the town magistrates in Wingfield’s Progress, one of the funniest scenes in that play, will be delighted to know that Needles and Beattie bring back the entire four-man council of human antiques who govern as much by whim as by rule of law. Also if you loved the idea of the stuttering Freddie, who loses his stutter entirely as an auctioneer in Wingfield’s Folly, you will love the similar idea in Unbound where he becomes a square dance caller.

In addition to these are new characters – Ronnie who works at the gas station; Dr. Winegard, a dentist from Toronto who has a hobby farm; Donna, the waitress at the Red Hen Restaurant; two auditors, one male, one female; plus conjurings of Spike the dog, Feedbin the horse, an auctioneer and a banshee. Beattie’s ability to create this panoply of voices and to keep them absolutely distinct is simply amazing.

One might think that having to act the play while seated in a chair for both acts might lessen the impact of the play. Strangely enough, it does not. In fact, I noticed and many other people I overheard remarked that they found themselves concentrating more fully on the story this time around than they did when they first saw the play. Again, it is a credit to Rod Beattie’s gifts of storytelling and impersonation and to Doug Beattie’s tight direction, always aware of where the laughter will be and how to pace the action, that Wingfield Unbound, and indeed all the Wingfield plays, so immediately and completely captivate their audiences. By Unbound the bond between actor and audience was so strong is was almost palpable. It is this bond that makes live theatre so superior to drama in recorded media. When the bond is so strong as it is in the Wingfield plays, the experience is pure bliss.

 • July 31: Wingfield on Ice

 • August 7: Wingfield’s Inferno

 • August 14: Wingfield Lost and Found

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Rod Beattie as Freddie. © 2013 Terry Manzo.

For tickets www.stratfordperthmuseum.ca.