Walt's back and still on track Number Six – count 'em – From Wingfield Farm
(Review published in Forever Young)
By Ellen Ashton-Haiste
The actor shrugs into a comfortable corduroy jacket, dons a
wide-brimmed hat, and delivers the deceptively simple line: "Dear Ed."
The audience erupts in applause.
Not that there's anything particularly consequential in those two
words but to countless enthusiastic fans of Walt Wingfield, it means
just one thing: He's back!
In Hollywood, the rule of thumb
is that sequels seldom live up to originals. But in the stage world of
Ontario Canada's Persephone Township, Walt Wingfield is consistently
disproving that truism. At episode number six, what began as a
"Wingfield Trilogy" has doubled its mandate and we are still waiting
for the story to become mundane, boring, repetitious or, in fact,
anything other than captivating, engrossing and everlastingly funny.
Throughout it's 20-year run, the adventures of a Bay Street
stockbroker in search of a kinder, gentler life as a gentleman farmer
in the rural north-of-Toronto township have continued to live up to and
even surpass the high standards set in the first one-man show, Letter From Wingfield Farm, which premiered in the Rosemont, Ont. Orange Hall in 1984.
Cast in the format of a series of letters from Walt to "Ed," the
editor of the local newspaper, the stories encapsulate the struggles
and issues that plague us all in one form or another, striking the
perfect balance between uproariously comic and heart-tuggingly tender
Along the way the audience has shared and
empathized with Walt's efforts to learn the business of farming, while
determined to stick to the old methods of horse-drawn plows and
range-fed chickens, leading to the calamity of his Green Acres.
We've seen him get acquainted with an array of eccentric neighbours,
struggle for acceptance in his new society, and even get married,
become a father and a somewhat reluctant community leader.
The success of this series is due to the extraordinary talents of
creator/author Dan Needles and actor Rod Beattie, who, incredibly,
portrays all of the characters — a number which grows exponentially
with each new production — effortlessly slipping from one to another
with a change of stance, voice, facial expression or hat.
Beattie, directed by brother Douglas, creates more of this magic in
this latest episode, giving voice to several new characters including
Walt's baby daughter, Hope, who speaks her first words. He also endows
Walt with new depths of character as he embraces the responsibilities,
challenges and heartaches of fatherhood.
Concern over Baby
Hope's chronic ear infections and evolving relationship with the family
dog are fodder for Walt's ruminations on parenthood, running parallel
to the larger theme of rising insurance costs, something opening night
audiences at the Stratford Festival — where Walt's Inferno is premiering this summer — could obviously relate to.
Walt is reluctantly recruited to chair a committee to rebuild the
township's Orange Hall, virtually destroyed by fire, a task that seems
to be a lost cause despite the landmark's significance as the social
centre of the community, a historic site and, incidentally, the
birthplace of Walt's daughter, during a snowstorm in episode five.
The fact that the hall, prior to the fire, had been granted heritage
designation, gives rise to an ingenious plan to collect a promised
restoration grant cheque. This involves a visit by the local MP and a
photo-op on a foggy night, following a circuitous tour of the area
including a lengthy detour and a stop at a micro-brewery.
There's also efforts to train the newest Wingfield Farm filly as a
race horse even though she can't tolerate reins or bridle and an
incredibly funny effort to capture a skunk who is invading the farm's
Stratford's Tom Patterson Theatre is well suited
for this play, its intimate seating wrapping around the stage and
nourishing the interaction between actor and audience. This was evident
on opening night when Walt, having hatched an elaborate time-sensitive
plan to trap the above-mentioned skunk on the eve of the autumn time
change, began to set up for the line by referring to an event that
happens each fall across Canada, except in Saskatchewan. Interrupted by
a burst of laughter, Beattie chuckled and commented to the audience:
"You're getting ahead of me."
That kind of interactive
relationship between actor and viewer is a cornerstone of the success
of this series, which has spun off into a television series, is
available on audio cassette, video and, in some cases DVD and is often
presented three-at-a-time in repertory.
It makes one wonder
if Beattie will ever lose track of this long history and growing
countryside of characters and, indeed, if anyone else could create this
kind of on-stage magic. With luck we won't have to find out for some
time to come and, for this season, audiences can revel in more laughs
and adventures with Walt and Company.
Wingfield's Inferno continues at the Tom Patterson Theatre until Aug. 14.