by Dan Needles
Theatre New Brunswick
Fredericton, April 2001
There can hardly be many people likely to be found near a theatre in Canada who don't know about Walt Wingfield and his farm, or who wouldn't recognize Rod Beattie's wonderfully mobile face looking out from a barn. The fourth installment of the long-running series of one-man shows about the broker-turned-farmer is serving as Theatre New Brunswick's final show of the season, and if its official Fredericton opening is anything to go by, almost nobody thinks it such a bad thing that it's more of the same.
And that's exactly what it is: Dan Needles' undeniably funny ideas are brought to life and served up, as before, by the breathtakingly competent Beattie, with his sure sense of timing, his ability to make his voice be whoever he wants it to be, and the instant changes of posture, expression and movement which keep us completely clear, all the time, which of any of a dozen or more characters is speaking -- or even just reacting silently. For just an instant, he's a silent, guilty dog, and you don't have the slightest doubt about it.
Beattie's uncanny sense of just how long to wait before delivering a kicker makes lines you might hardly notice on a page into showstoppers. "Well," the newspaper editor who starts and ends the show says, about the folks of Persephone County, "when you ask them how they are, they say they can't complain . . . [long, speculative pause] . . . but they find a way." Or, later Walt Wingfield describes his experience with horses as having acquired consecutively slower ones. He describes each of them, and, after the same sort of pause, says, "If I buy another horse, it'll have to be a statue."
The surprisingly full opening night house responded warmly and Beattie played the response for all it was worth, even working an inadvertent audience cell phone ring into his world. There was never a doubt that we were in the hands of a consummately skilled actor and comedian, and hardly an opportunity for a laugh was missed. At a number of points I was reminded irresistibly of Jack Benny's mastery of the protracted, expectant, smiling silence.
And yet, somehow, the evening seemed just slightly long. We got our money's worth, and perhaps just a bit more. It was, perhaps, a little bit like a whole evening of Dave and Morley and the Vinyl Cafe, or Lake Woebegone: however good it is, you can only take just so much of "more of the same." One problem was that the "story" which drives the evening forward is so slight and evanescent as hardly to be noticed -- the interruptions, like the set pieces about Walt and his neighbour cooking a replacement casserole ("we're a little short on time, Walt, why don't we try a half hour at seven hundred degrees?") and about chicken farming, pretty well displace any expectation of what might be going to happen next. Sam Johnson said, admiringly, about Shakespeare's plays that the end of the play is commonly the end of expectation. For Wingfield Unbound it's hard to tell when expectation ends, since there's really not much of it. It's one letter after another, some more funny, some less so.
Ostensibly, the story revolves around Walt's decision to convert an abandoned mill into a museum to preserve Persephone county's past, but in fact he doesn't get much farther than discovering that folks think the mill's haunted, and, after grappling a bit with hauntings and prescience, deciding that, well, change is good too. Perhaps more plot would be inappropriate to what is, after all, a series of set letters, but I'm not sure it wouldn't have kept us more involved. Even more attention to the relation between Walt and his new wife, Maggie -- after all, the next Wingfield show is clearly going to be about their baby -- might have engaged us -- although, in some ways, Maggie, with her knowingly vacant stare and her dimples, is one of the weaker Beattie creations.
Another way to solve the problem might be to shorten the script. And there were elements which might well have been edited: Walt's two nephews, who develop a scheme to take money from a rich dentist and his friends and buy cattle futures online rather than the cattle they were supposed to buy, seem pretty much entirely disconnected from the rest of the play, and, indeed, to be the only two characters I didn't always recognize instantly (they, and their father, Walt's brother in law, had a family resemblance which often got rather out of hand). And, more important, the stockbroker-superman skills Walt uses to extricate them magically from their self-invented disaster aren't either believable or dramatically satisfying. Tick-tick, he goes on the keyboard of an antique laptop, and presto! all is well.
More generally, there are so many characters that in order to keep them separate they really all have to be pretty simple and obvious. It might be that if Needles and Beattie gave us fewer people and got a little deeper into their lives Wingfield Farm could be a place we cared a little more about. There was an odd sense, a number of times during the evening, that what we were looking at in Rod Beattie's amused and slightly sardonic smile wasn't Walt, or any of the characters, but Beattie himself being distantly and ironically amused at it all.
On the other hand, looking a gift horse in the mouth is a bad idea. If you're looking for an enjoyable and not-too-challenging evening of laughter, TNB's got just the show for you.
It's worth saying, though, that it's unfortunate that TNB has to present what is essentially a touring show as its own last production of the year, letting the talents and energies of its staff lie fallow while we import a package -- however much fun it is -- from elsewhere. I'd like to have seen TNB, or the Playhouse (now that they're separate entities) able to do both: to bring this show in and mount our own. I know that there are financial reasons why that's impossible, but I still regret the necessity.