Review: ‘The Wingfield Trilogy’

Canadians have known Walt Wingfield for years. Actor Rob Beattie has provided the innermost thoughts of this stockbroker-turned-farmer to some 500,000 people. He performed his one-man show 250 times just this year, including a highly successful stint at the Stratford Festival. The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. even has a spinoff series in the works. But "The Wingfield Trilogy" was virtually unknown in the United States until this Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park premiere.

Canadians have known Walt Wingfield for years. Actor Rob Beattie has provided the innermost thoughts of this stockbroker-turned-farmer to some 500,000 people. He performed his one-man show 250 times just this year, including a highly successful stint at the Stratford Festival. The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. even has a spinoff series in the works. But “The Wingfield Trilogy” was virtually unknown in the United States until this Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park premiere.

The playhouse grabbed a highly entertaining property and is now scoring at the B.O. with a cheap-to-produce crowd pleaser that brings an audience back to the theater three times. Walt plays surprisingly well south of the border, especially in a conservative Midwestern city. Cincinnati audiences are giving standing ovations to Beattie’s tour de force, which could well prove a hot commercial property elsewhere stateside.

“The Wingfield Trilogy” is actually three full-length and independent one-man shows: “Letters From Wingfield Farm,””Wingfield’s Progress” and “Wingfield’s Folly.” Beattie typically performs the trio in rotation, stressing that they can be seen individually or in any order. Viewed in one day, the three shows last around six hours, but the time passes quickly.

The premise behind the trilogy is simple in the extreme. Each play is framed by a local newspaper editor (Beattie, of course), who tells of a Toronto stockbroker named Walt Wingfield who has traded his pinstripes for a farm. Wingfield is supposedly sending in a weekly letter to the local paper, telling of his everyday trials and torments. A well-meaning but inept farmer, his gently satirical musings are full of self-deprecating wit.

The appeal of this “agri-odyssey” is reminiscent of Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion.” Nothing much happens. Walt’s letters describe his meeting several strange but kind neighbors — a windfall of memorable rural eccentrics. Walt’s horses refuse to plow. His turkeys die. The farm struggles. People help him out. An urban developer is dispatched back to the city in a load of manure. Walt almost packs it all in but instead hangs tough. Life churns along. And audiences lap it up.

Like a rambling but lovable Victorian novel, Dan Needles’ script meanders through Walt’s troubled two years on the farm, digressing at whim to follow subplots and side characters. People whom the audience hear from briefly in the first play reappear in the third. Issues such as the erosion of farms and the importance of community are touched upon briefly, but Walt’s humor and personality are the main objects of dramatic interest here. Some of the references are overtly Canadian, but Midwestern Americans seem to identify easily with the hapless farmer’s eternal struggles.

During the course of the trilogy, the excellent Beattie plays some 43 characters, from a stuttering farmer to a hound named Spike, and from an old Irish farmhand to a pompous town clerk. With minimal technical support, each is carefully realized, complete with a distinct physicality and unique voice. Without a performance of such consistent quality, these rather naive shows would quickly become dull and trite. Even over six almost-consecutive hours, Beattie ensures that never happens, coupling his marvelous characterizations with a keen sense of the presence of an audience. He’s a great storyteller, and the material holds up surprisingly well.

It’s hard to imagine “The Wingfield Trilogy” without Beattie, and urban audiences might find these homespun tales resistible. But the success of this charming series in Canadians have known Walt Wingfield for years. Actor Rob Beattie has provided the innermost thoughts of this stockbroker-turned-farmer to some 500,000 people. He performed his one-man show 250 times just this year, including a highly successful stint at the Stratford Festival. The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. even has a spinoff series in the works. But “The Wingfield Trilogy” was virtually unknown in the United States until this Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park premiere.

The playhouse grabbed a highly entertaining property and is now scoring at the B.O. with a cheap-to-produce crowd pleaser that brings an audience back to the theater three times. Walt plays surprisingly well south of the border, especially in a conservative Midwestern city. Cincinnati audiences are giving standing ovations to Beattie’s tour de force, which could well prove a hot commercial property elsewhere stateside.

“The Wingfield Trilogy” is actually three full-length and independent one-man shows: “Letters From Wingfield Farm,””Wingfield’s Progress” and “Wingfield’s Folly.” Beattie typically performs the trio in rotation, stressing that they can be seen individually or in any order. Viewed in one day, the three shows last around six hours, but the time passes quickly.

The premise behind the trilogy is simple in the extreme. Each play is framed by a local newspaper editor (Beattie, of course), who tells of a Toronto stockbroker named Walt Wingfield who has traded his pinstripes for a farm. Wingfield is supposedly sending in a weekly letter to the local paper, telling of his everyday trials and torments. A well-meaning but inept farmer, his gently satirical musings are full of self-deprecating wit.

The appeal of this “agri-odyssey” is reminiscent of Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion.” Nothing much happens. Walt’s letters describe his meeting several strange but kind neighbors — a windfall of memorable rural eccentrics. Walt’s horses refuse to plow. His turkeys die. The farm struggles. People help him out. An urban developer is dispatched back to the city in a load of manure. Walt almost packs it all in but instead hangs tough. Life churns along. And audiences lap it up.

Like a rambling but lovable Victorian novel, Dan Needles’ script meanders through Walt’s troubled two years on the farm, digressing at whim to follow subplots and side characters. People whom the audience hear from briefly in the first play reappear in the third. Issues such as the erosion of farms and the importance of community are touched upon briefly, but Walt’s humor and personality are the main objects of dramatic interest here. Some of the references are overtly Canadian, but Midwestern Americans seem to identify easily with the hapless farmer’s eternal struggles.

During the course of the trilogy, the excellent Beattie plays some 43 characters, from a stuttering farmer to a hound named Spike, and from an old Irish farmhand to a pompous town clerk. With minimal technical support, each is carefully realized, complete with a distinct physicality and unique voice. Without a performance of such consistent quality, these rather naive shows would quickly become dull and trite. Even over six almost-consecutive hours, Beattie ensures that never happens, coupling his marvelous characterizations with a keen sense of the presence of an audience. He’s a great storyteller, and the material holds up surprisingly well.

It’s hard to imagine “The Wingfield Trilogy” without Beattie, and urban audiences might find these homespun tales resistible. But the success of this charming series in Canada has already shown that there’s a place for folksy theatrical tales on either side of the border.

The Wingfield Trilogy

Production

A Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park presentation of three plays, each in two acts, by Dan Needles. Directed by Douglas Beattie.

Crew

Sets, John Thompson; lighting and costumes, Rob Beattie; production stage manager, Tom Lawson. Opened Jan. 20, 1994, at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. Reviewed Jan. 29; 629 seats; $ 30 top (each play).
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