Stage Door Review
Monday, July 18, 2022
by Dan Needles, directed by Douglas Beattie
Douglas Beattie Theatrical Productions Ltd., Player’s Backstage, Stratford Perth Museum, Stratford
July 17, 2022
Walt: “They realize that I cooperate best when I don’t know what’s going on”
On July 17 Rod Beattie performed Wingfield’s Folly from 1990, the third of the seven-play Wingfield series, presented by Stratford Perth Museum as Wingfield – The Complete Works. After the first play in the series, Letter from Wingfield Farm in 1985, author Dan Needles didn’t expect to write any more plays about Walt Wingfield, the stockbroker-turned-farmer. Yet, Letter proved such a hit, that he wrote a sequel, Wingfield’s Progress in 1987. The success of both plays led to Wingfield’s Folly, but it is clear from the structure of the play that Needles felt he was writing the final play of a trilogy. For the next seven years people commonly referred to the first three Wingfield plays as The Wingfield Trilogy.
Letter functioned primarily to introduce Walt Wingfield and the inhabitants of Larkspur in Persephone Township and detail Walt’s difficulties both as a newbie farmer and an outsider trying in vain to fit in to a rural community. Wingfield’s Progress gave Walt and his new friends and neighbours a common enemy and in so doing made Walt part of an “us” who wanted to preserve farmland against development versus an urban “them”, a developer who wanted to cover over farmland and tell the farmers how to live.
Wingfield’s Folly, as a would-be finale to a trilogy, picks up strands of the previous two plays and weaves them together to produce an archetypal comedic conclusion. One strand is Walt’s naive desire, inspired by Thoreauvian notions of achieving a oneness with nature, to farm the land as it used to be done circa 1905. Walt’s ideal vision quickly hits the practical realities of farming leading to one comic disaster after another. In particular, Walt wants to till the land with horses and plow, even though the farmers around him use machinery. In Folly, Needles returns to the difficulties Walt has with his horses Feedbin, Mortgage and Old King, and shows him giving up on his ideal to buy a tractor.
Another strand is the toll that constant failure takes on Walt. After two “profit-free” years of farming, as he calls them, Walt still has to rely on his income from two days of work in the city to carry him through. He reflects on his hopeless inadequacies as a farmer and begins to think the entire project of trying to farm is a folly he should give up.
A third strand that exacerbates Walt’s growing view of himself as a failure, is the new topic of Walt’s last attempt to foist his ideals on the local community. Walt thinks that farmers should help each other rather than giving money to big corporations. Walt says that farmers should decide which goods and services are equivalent and trade those for each other to avoid spending money. The symbol for a unit of goods or services Walt’s friends christen the “Walt” and soon a lively barter economy is started.
Walt, as usual, is unaware of the malevolence that also lurks in the idyllic countryside, his utopian scheme is undermined and Walt again loses money.
The fourth strand of the plot, one that has continued from Letter onwards, is Walt’s desire to be accepted into the community. In Progress Walt seemed to achieve acceptance by the larger community. In Folly Walt starts to feel that he wants to be accepted by one particular member of the local community, namely Maggie, cousin of his neighbour Freddie. Walt’s main worry, however, is that Maggie, who wants to set up a small shop in town, has sought the help of Sid, an old beau. Walt, though he doesn’t acknowledge it, begins experiencing a new feeling in paradise — namely jealousy.
Needles, whose ability to generate comedy from a simple turn of phrase, proves also to be a master of plot design. The four strands of plot outlined above may not immediately appear to have much to do with each other, and Needles is quite happy to let us think so until nearly the end of the play. Nevertheless, Needles joins all four in the cleverest way and gives the strong impression that he has not only completed Wingfield’s story in Folly but the Wingfield saga in general.
The climactic event precipitated by the fall of the “Walt” and Walt’s subsequent depression, is Walt’s decision to sell the farm and to hold an auction to sell off all the goods. The sad selling of the farm clearly parallels the giddy buying of the farm in Letter and the occurrence of the auction give Needles the occasion to survey all the events that various animals and objects have been associated with over the course of the three plays.
As usual Rod Beattie gives voice to Walt and to the Editor of the Larkspur Free Press and Economist, the local newspaper that publishes the Walt’s letters that give an account of his adventures. Along with these are the cast of neighbours and friends who have continued since their introduction in Letter onwards — Freddie, Freddie’s nephews Willy and Dave, the Squire and Don. Even the old Irishman Jimmy, who died in Progress is heard again. Voices first heard in Progress return, most importantly Maggie and the duplicitous shopkeeper nicknamed “Dry Cry”. The vet from Letter returns and if you include Beattie’s vivid impressions of a tractor and of the horse Old King plus two new human characters, Beattie does 14 voices in all.
In Folly, two characters particularly shine. These are the siblings Freddie and Maggie. Walt’s neighbour Freddie has been a rich source of comedy from the beginning. His terrible stutter only delays the punchline of his every sentence, as we try to guess, usually incorrectly, how he will finish. We did hear that Freddie was an auctioneer in Letter, but it is only in Folly that we see him action. The obvious paradox is how a person with a stutter can possibly be an auctioneer, but, as is the case with other stutterers, once Freddie is in action his stutter completely disappears only to be replaced with the professional rapid-fire auction chant which is like stuttering with a purpose. Not only is this amazing because of Beattie’s ability to switch from one mode to the other, but he has completely mastered Needles’s script in which Freddie chides the assembled crowd from not bidding what he thinks the items are worth. It is a great, technically complex comic performance.
Maggie is just the opposite of Freddie, her calm, measured slow delivery contrasting with his interrupted speech patterns. Yet, the two have a similarity in that they both are committed to telling the truth no matter how it may hurt. Maggie is a wonderful creation with her self-possession and soothing voice often contrasting with the stinging truths she has to deliver. The quality that Beattie uses to distinguish Maggie from Freddie is in bringing out the subtext of everything she says. Beattie does this by highlighting Maggie’s eye movements in a way unlike all the others. This layered performance progressively raises Maggie up to the status of the wisest character of Needles’s dramatis personae.
At the conclusion of Folly, one does feel as if the central story Needles has been telling has completed a full arc. Looking over the huge range of voices that Beattie’s incredible skill keeps completely distinct and Beattie’s amazingly precise comic timing, it is understandable that Rod Beattie was acclaimed as a national treasure just at conclusion of the Wingfield Trilogy.
It is remarkable that Beattie keeps the audience in rapt attention with the most minimal means. He remains seated in a chair centre stage throughout each act. He uses only changes of voice, facial expression, head position and small hand gestures to indicate his rapid transformations from character to character. Young actors who believe shouting and wild gesturing is necessary to convey a character would do well to study Beattie’s performances to learn how less is infinitely more effective.
• July 24: Wingfield Unbound
• July 31: Wingfield On Ice
• August 7: Wingfield’s Inferno
• August 14: Wingfield Lost and Found
Photo: Rod Beattie as Maggie. © 2013 Terry Manzo.
For tickets www.stratfordperthmuseum.ca.