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My CBC review of Wingfield’s Inferno

Here’s the written version of my review for CBC’s Afternoon Edition today of last night’s opening performance of Wingfield’s Inferno at Globe Theatre.

As they say in the political-speech-writing-biz, “check against delivery.”
Globe Theatre’s latest mainstage offering, Wingfield’s Inferno, opened last night in Regina, and Edward Willett was there to see it.

Q. So, Ed, for those who aren’t familiar with this whole series of Wingfield plays, maybe you can explain the basic premise.

It’s pretty straightforward: to quote the plays’ website, the Wingfield plays are “about city stockbroker Walt Wingfield who quits the rat race to buy a hundred acre farm in mythical Persephone Township an hour north of Toronto.” The first play was called Letters from Wingfield Farm, and all of them are structured the same way: as a series of letters sent by Walt Wingfield to the editor of a weekly newspaper detailing his rural adventures. They’re all written by Dan Needles, directed by Douglas Beattie, and acted by Rod Beattie.

Q. How many have there been so far?

This is the sixth.

Q. Have you seen all of them?

No, but I think I’ve seen the last four at least.

Q. And how does this one rate?

It’s hard to compare plays you see at maybe two-year intervals, so I can’t necessarily say it’s better than the last one, Wingfield On Ice–but I will say it’s every bit as good. And that’s no small feat, when you think about it. As anyone who watches television knows, sometimes series tail off in quality over time. Author Dan Needles hasn’t fallen into that trap. Each play is beautifully structured, paced and crafted, and this one is no exception.

Q. So what’s the storyline this time?

Well, the basic situation is simple: the Orange Hall in Larkspur, center of community life for half a century, has burned down, and Walt Wingfield, somewhat to his own surprise, ends up as chairman of the committee tasked with getting it rebuilt. Which is harder than you might think in this era of steep insurance premiums and restrictive building codes. Not to mention the fact his committee members include people involved in building the original hall who still hold grudges over decisions made at that time, and the last two remaining Orangemen, who’d like to just bulldoze the site and put up a couple of nice bungalows.

The title of the play comes not only from the inferno of the fire, but from Dante’s Inferno, in which the Seventh Circle of Hell includes usurers–which according to Wingfield includes stockbrokers (such as himself) and insurance salesmen, among others.

References to Dante pop up here and there; I particularly enjoyed a scene where Wingfield and Hallett get ferried across a river by an old ferryman, shades (so to speak) of Charon, who in Dante’s poem ferries the dead across the river Archon into the underworld.

But woven through that main plot line are secondary plots involving a racehorse, a skunk, and most poignantly, Wingfield’s nine-month-old daughter Hope, born in the regalia room of thenow-defunct Orange Hall during an ice storm in the last play and now facing a possibly serious medical problem.

Q. So it’s not entirely comedy?

Not in the sense that it offers nothing but laughs, but it’s the best kind of comedy in that it’s based in recognizable, real-life situations. Persephone Township is full of characters, but not caricatures. They may be slightly over the top, but they’re also recognizable as at least potentially real people.

Q. But all of these characters are played by one man.

Yes, actor Rod Beattie is everyone, from the newspaper editor to Wingfield to all of the other people Wingfield meets in the course of the story. That’s, oh, eight or nine different men, at least two women (one of whom is Wingfield’s wife), and even, briefly, a dog, Spike, and the nine-month-old baby, Hope.

Beattie’s terrific at it. One character never slops over into another, and each is distinctive enough in both physical manner and voice that, once they’re introduced, you know who’s talking the moment he switches roles. One particularly funny characterization in this play is the local Member of Parliament, Winston “Windy” Hallett, amiably bluffing his way through events without any real clue as to what’s going on.

There is one slight problem with a one-man show in the round, of course–and since Globe is the only professional theatre-in-the-round in Canada, it’s possible this is the only place Wingfield’s Inferno is done in the round. In even a two-person play, like the last Globe mainstage production, Sexy Laundry, you’ve usually got at least one actor facing you or in profile at all times. With a one-person show, inevitably there were times when Beattie’s back was to you, and since a lot of the humor arose from his facial expressions as well as spoken dialogue, you couldn’t help but feel you were missing out a little. But that’s a minor quibble and it’s unavoidable in the Globe’s space.

Q. Is there an elaborate set?

There’s actually not much set at all: a rug, a desk, a couple of chairs, one of which is rigged with a rotating seat so that it serves admirably as the driver’s seat of a 4X4; by spinning on it, Beattie is able to increase the illusion of being in a moving vehicle.

Lighting is similarly simple: dim lights for evening, bright lights for day, and lighting effects limited to some flashing reds to indicate flickering fire and rotating emergency vehicle lights, plus a strobe for a photographer’s flash. It’s a show that would work just as well on a stage with no lighting effects at all, and is transportable to just about any imaginable space…which of course is what you want in a show that tours.

Q. You mentioned this is the sixth in this series. Do you need to have seen the others to enjoy this one?

Not at all. There’s an added pleasure in, as it were, meeting up with old friends from Persephone Township if you’ve seen the previous plays, but a first-timer will still find plenty to amuse them.

Q. And was the audience last night, first-timers and old-timers, amused?

There was a lot of laughter, and a standing ovation at the end, so I’d have to say everyone had a wonderful time. In fact, it’s hard for me to imagine who could go to one of these plays and emerge either unmoved or unamused.

Dante’s Inferno was part of a larger work called The Divine Comedy. Wingfield’s Inferno may not quite rise to the level of divine–but I think you could at least call it heavenly. It’s just a warm, wonderful, utterly enjoyable way to spend an evening at the theatre…and a great counter to the February blahs.

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