Wingfield on Ice
by Dan Needles
Theatre New Brunswick
The Playhouse, May 2004
That author Dan Needles and actor Rod Beattie (and director Douglas Beattie) know how to work a stage, hold an audience, get a laugh, create a character, and move an audience -- and fill a house -- there's increasingly little doubt. And Wingfield on Ice, the fifth and most recent episode in the epic series of one-man shows which began as Letter from Wingfield Farm almost twenty years ago, has been widely hailed as the best so far.
Beattie, as he demonstrated at the Playhouse on the opening night of TNB's final production of the year, has all the chops down. His dazzling, lightning-fast character changes, the wonderful physical control that lets you know exactly which of the dozen or more characters he is, sometimes even before he utters a word, his faultless comic timing and the stage presence that can captivate 700 people with nothing more than a body and a voice (no amp, no light show, no sound design, almost nothing in the way of props, set, or costume) are at least as astonishing as they were the last time he played the Playhouse, three years ago, in the fourth play in the series, Wingfield Unbound. He can get a solid laugh from a line like "he is so cheap he gave up drinking tea . . . because he lost his teabag," and he can get applause with one only a little better: "A big woman. As Freddy says, big enough to burn Diesel." His progress across the stage -- up his driveway -- on the first night of the storm is a kind of object lesson in how someone walks on wet ice in the dark. It's too bad all the high school students who'd spent the previous four days on campus for the drama festival couldn't have been invited down to the Playhouse for a lesson in physical acting.
Much of the reason that this most recent chapter in the saga has often been seen as the best seems to me the increased stiffening lent the production by its story line, and by the way in which the strands of the story are woven into what looks suspiciously like a theme. The first act, to be sure, seems to be pretty much the same as previous Wingfield shows, relying primarily on rural humor and the occasional whiff of sentimentalism, and exhibiting not much structure beyond the conventional "Dear Ed . . Yours sincerely, Walt" opening and closing of segments. But the second half is something else again, as the now-legendary ice storm descends on Persephone County and the stable of characters suddenly find themselves dealing with real-world problems. As I predicted three years ago, this play involves Walt and Maggie's baby, who arrives during the ice storm; what I didn't predict, however, was the deepening of some of the relationships -- like that between Walt and his neighbours, as they cope with the emergency by sharing expertise, jury-rigging milking machines based on the vacuum pump of a pickup truck, creating a bicycle-driven generator to operate the electrical relays for a gas furnace, and in the process discovering each others' capacity for ingenuity and compassion.
I wasn't convinced by Walt's "discovery" that there were lots of people in Persephone county with grudges against each other: his apparent surprise seemed rather overdue. After all, at this point in the life of the story he's been there for five years. It didn't take my family more than a few months to learn that people in the rural neck of the woods we moved to three decades ago were pretty much like people everywhere, and that if a community was stable its hatreds and grudges were likely to be stable too. But once past that, Walt's quixotic attempts at reconciliation -- which in the first act seem merely the occasion for some rueful laughs -- become a kind of recurrent theme, as people are forced into each other's company, and occasionally arms, by the exigencies of dealing with a widespread, longlasting power failure in the midst of an Ontario winter. Even the birth of Walt and Maggie's baby occasions a reconciliation, between Maggie and the neighbour, dismissed previously as the sort of person who uses Dream Whip to make creampuffs, but who steps in as a more than competent midwife at the crisis. And perhaps the most memorable character of the evening -- making up for what still seems to me Beattie's unconvincing and condescending Maggie -- is also, it turns out, central to a reconciliation. The Squire next door, we find, has been estranged from his brother for fifty years because the brother married a Catholic. As the evening progresses, we learn that the real reason for the anger is that he wanted to marry her himself, and that he's had an unopened letter from the fiancee all those years. Beattie's turn as the craggy, stubborn old man is one of the most astonishing bits of facial and physical transformation I can remember seeing, and if finally it all seems just slightly anticlimactic it's more than made up for by the way Beattie presents that ancient face opening the long-ignored letter.
The Ottawa Citizen is quoted on the Wingfield Web site as saying, "If you've never really enjoyed one person shows, this is the one to change your mind." I guess I fall into that category, and while I won't say that Needles, Beattie and director Douglas Beattie have entirely changed my mind, this show certainly raises questions about why I find most one person shows difficult to be enthusiastic about. (Which reminds me: when was the last time you were in the Playhouse and there wasn't a standing ovation?)
I've said it before, however, and I'll say it again: I don't understand why we need Theatre New Brunswick to bring Walt Wingfield to the Playhouse. This is a self-contained touring show, and while there's no doubt that resident lighting director Chris Saad's subtle changes were a strong addition to it, this is essentially a production which could be brought in to any venue prepared to make the deal: Tim Yerxa and the Playhouse management could just as easily have brought Beattie and Wingfield to Fredericton in the same way that, during this season, they brought in Halo and The Blue Orphan. It is, of course, a good thing that the show will tour to the usual TNB venues -- probably Sussex or Miramichi wouldn't have found a way to book it in, otherwise.
But the reasons I've supported TNB for three decades don't have much to do with its skills as a booking agent for travelling productions. A company like Theatre New Brunswick needs to contribute to the theatrical life of Fredericton and the province in wider and more permanent ways than simply making it possible for us to experience good theatre. It needs to be mounting productions here, from scratch, and supporting theatre professionals (like Chris Saad) who can contribute their talents to the community, and it needs thereby to be supporting, and participating in, the remarkable recent growth of theatre here.