Stage Door Review

Wingfield’s Progress

Monday, July 11, 2022

✭✭✭✭

by Dan Needles, directed by Douglas Beattie

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

July 10, 2022

“Elegance in Harmony with Nature”

On July 10 Rod Beattie performed Wingfield’s Progress from 1987, the second of the seven-play Wingfield series, presented by  Stratford Perth Museum as Wingfield – The Complete Works. Beattie says that this is the first and the last time he will be performing all seven of the one-man Wingfield plays in chronological order at the same venue. While the seven plays do tell a continuous story, playwright Dan Needles has written them so cleverly that each play can also stand alone. Thus, anyone who happened to miss the first Wingfield play, Letter from Wingfield Farm or Wingfield’s Progress, will still be able to enjoy any of the following five plays.

Wingfield’s Progress, like all of the seven Wingfield plays, presents itself in the form of letters that Walt Wingfield, businessman-turned-farmer, writes as a column for the local newspaper in the fictional town Larkspur, Ontario, somewhere north of Toronto. Each play begins with a prologue by the paper’s Editor to catch us up with what Walt has been doing since the previous play and each finishes with an epilogue by the Editor informing us of the various repercussions of Walt’s actions in the episode we’ve just heard.

Letter from Wingfield Farm was about how urbanite Walt Wingfield was gradually and warily tolerated, if not entirely accepted, by the new community of Persephone Township where he had purchased a farm of 100 acres. The show is episodic with each letter focussing on a different adventure or local character that Walt meets during his year on the farm.

The theme in Wingfield’s Progress is not as general as city-dweller-meets-country-folk. Instead, a threat to Persephone Township arrives which raises Walt from his status as outsider to the leader of his community versus this threat.

In Wingfield’s Progress a lawyer from Toronto, Darcy Dixon, has bought a plot of land adjoining Walt’s farm and plans to build a 42-unit condominium on the plot. The name for the development is Persephone Glen Homes and its motto is “Elegance in Harmony with Nature” — a phrase rife with irony on many levels. Not only will such a development cover over acres of agricultural land and pave the way for further development, the condominium will ruin Walt’s Thoreau-inspired vision of farming as a means of restoring his spirit after time spent in the soul-crushing atmosphere of the city.

At first Walt finds it difficult to find anyone to side with him against Dixon. The town council, insisting on unannounced deadlines and arbitrary technicalities, is uninterested in hearing his case. Walt’s neighbours think only about how the development will give the township greater tax revenue. Walt thinks that his only chance to oppose Dixon is to run for council himself. Walt’s neighbours agree to help his campaign though they tell him that as someone not born in the township he doesn’t have a chance of winning.

As time goes on, Dixon manages to insult or offend every one of Walt’s friends. Dixon, for instance, doesn’t want Don to spread manure until winter so that the smell won’t drive potential condo clients away. With all his friends now firmly on his side and with no legal means of recourse, the play ends with the Battle of Persephone Glen, one of the most hilarious sequences in all the Wingfield plays.

Under the precise direction of Douglas Beattie, Rod Beattie continues his amazing feat of transforming himself from character to character with just a change of voice or facial expression. Eight characters return from Letter, namely the Editor and Walt; Walt’s neighbours Freddie, Don and the Squire; Freddie’s up-to-no-good nephews Willy and Dave; and Jimmy, the old Irishman Freddie employs.

Rod Beattie adds to this group nine new named characters plus two more anonymous voices. The most amusing of these are the officious town clerk, whom Beattie impersonates employing amazing facial distortion, and McKelvie, known as “Dry Cry”, the shifty local store-owner. The most significant new voice is that of Maggie, Freddie’s sister, a calm, clear source of reason who will come to play a larger role in the subsequent plays.

Unlike the purely episodic structure of Letters, the structure of Progress consists of scenes that we at first perceive as mere episodes of country life, such as Walt’s foolish purchase of 100 goslings, until by the end we see that each of these episodes has directly contributed to the play’s climactic scene. The structure of Progress shows the beginning of change in Needles’s use of Walt’s letters from separate satires of farm life to chapters of a single overarching story.

Different also from Letters is Needles’s allowing the narrative of Progress to take a sudden turn away from comedy. This turn marks the change in point of view in the Wingfield series from Walt’s looking at rural life as an outsider to the growing compassion he feels for his fellow country folk as one of their number. This willingness to look at the darker side of life gives the Wingfield plays depth between the glittering surface of Needles’s wittily crafted dialogue. No true lover of Canadian drama should remain ignorant of this masterful succession of comic gems. Like Letters, Progress was also sold out, so act quickly if you want to see any of the remaining performances.

 • 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

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Rod Beattie as the Editor, © 2010 Terry Manzo; Rod Beattie applauded at end of Wingfield’s Progress at Player’s Backstage, © 2022 Stratford Perth Museum.

For tickets visit www.stratfordperthmuseum.ca.