After two weeks covering the Shaw and Stratford Shakespeare Festivals’ openings, how further invigorating it was to happen, quite by accident, upon the latest production from the Thousand Islands Playhouse.
Celebrating its 30th anniversary, here’s another seasonal theatre that offers top quality on its versatile stages (Springer Theatre is the main venue offering five shows and classical music series; Firehall Theatre is known for its edgier fare) and a beautiful view of the St. Lawrence River between acts. The former canoe club has been marvellously reinvented—those with the wherewithal could tie up their boats—large or small—then stroll along the dock and into the not-a-bad-seat-in-the-house spaces.
Those who assembled in the Springer on this occasion were rewarded with the most recent installment from Dan Needles’ Wingfield series. The easy-going, one-man-many-characters formula (an actor recites his letters to the editor), chronicling hobby farmer Walt Wingfield’s trials, tribulation and interactions with the good folks of Persephone Township’s Seventh Line works like a charm. Without a doubt, much of the evening’s success is due to Rod Beattie’s genius for characterization—he truly owns the part.
Director Douglas Beattie is the effective catalyst between actor and playwright, crafting a production that creates in the theatre what Stuart McLean’s similarly fashioned tales accomplish so well on radio. Like the Vinyl Café, in this episode, music plays an important role, but deftly worked into the script not just between segments.
The original score comes from Stephen Woodjetts who also performs (piano) the material on the show tape along with a brief intervention from Holly Shephard (trumpet). The “overture” and “entr’acte” contributions have a Scott Joplin-like feel and delightful moments of Leonard Bernstein’s “Wrong Note Rag,” even as George Gershwin works his thematic/harmonic way into the mix. The real highlight is the unknown ballad that artfully moves from mystery tune to dramatic turning point, deftly balancing copious amounts of situational humour and one-liners that give the show much of its punch.
But before leaving the aspect of sound, let us wonder—yet again—why on Earth any of Beattie’s words need to be filtered/reinforced via body microphone and speakers. The veteran could project every consonant and vowel (and the hilarious animal impersonations, notably Spike the dog) in a room three times the size. No one really wants to hear him smack his lips, and the frequent moves about the stage are literally seen but not aurally heard. For a few precious moments after the opening monologue when the system seemed to be down, Beattie’s dulcet tones rang clear as a bell on their own. Will the courage emerge to leave the talented performer unplugged?
Among the highlights of Beattie’s ever-changing personas are stuttering brother-in-law Freddy (especially fun on the “blue” words that are reworked and blurted out “safely”), neighbour Don (here the intonation is so reminiscent of M*A*S*H’s Colonel Potter, you’d swear Harry Morgan was in the room), wife Maggie (marvellously in touch with his feminine side) and a show-stopping trio of water witches (Yes, Virginia, there is a Shakespearean groaner to go with their “double, double toil and trouble”).
Yet the key to it all is reclusive/warehoused Delbert. Don’s estranged father has “lost his marbles” (according to Freddy) and is wasting away in a rest home (locally known as “I’m a Goner”—a telling yuk based on the generosity of a moneybags, naming-opportunity philanthropist). Back in the day, Delbert was the area’s master water witch. Now, a seemingly endless drought begs his return to Walt’s fields and practise his crop and livestock saving black art again. The urgent appeals are ignored because “I don’t do that anymore.”
That notion resonates entirely with Walt who has, likewise, stopped making stock market trades in favour of a simpler, apparently eco-friendly life (the city/country comparison scene is a gem). When it’s revealed the shut-in was also a first-rate pianist and composer, this Wingfield episode begins firing on all cylinders. Beattie truly makes his hands do the talking whether playing a most credible air piano, or searching for the life-giving underground spring with a cherry switch. (Incredibly, that moment sent me back to my own witnessing of a well witch successfully ply his craft for my family’s cottage.)
The coda is pure gold with yet another thoughtful way of tying the disparate narrative threads into an engaging whole.
With so much imagination and understanding of the human experience by everyone involved in Wingfield Lost & Found, theatregoers of all stripes are advised to find their way to Gananoque and see for themselves. JWR