Ron Beattie in Wingfield Lost and Found by Dan Needles (Ian Jackson)
The opening bars of Stephen Woodjetts jaunty piano music - which begins each Wingfield play - evoke a feeling of familiarity for me, and probably for anyone else who's followed Wingfield's progress since his debut in Letter From Wingfield Farm in 1985. (I don't go back quite that far with Wingfield, but this is my fifth encounter with him.)
And that's probably what's at the heart of popularity of the Wingfield series, which continues with Wingfield Lost and Found, the seventh installment, currently running at Prairie Theatre Exchange - it's familiar, it's predictable, and even if it's not electrifying, it'll be satisfying for fans. It's the theatre equivalent of having lunch at Tim's - it's not fancy, but it's reliable and it does the job.
The plot is never the point of these plays as much as the rich details playwright Dan Needles weaves into the winding vignettes from the world of stockbroker-turned-gentleman-farmer Walt Wingfield. But for what it's worth, Wingfield Lost and Found finds the well on Walt's farm running dry in the midst of the worst drought Persephone Township has seen in 25 years. At the same time, a water bottling plant is getting ready to start operating in the area. So there's the hint of an environmental theme under the story, but it never gets any deeper than the rhetorical question, "Why can't we just leave natural spaces alone?" Anyway, with the help of his colourful cast of neighbours, and after many misadventures, things work out for Walt, as usual. (And no, I don't consider that a spoiler - you know from the outset of a Wingfield play that things are going to be just fine.)
How much you will enjoy all this relies on your tolerance for "folksiness." As usual, the play is rife with folksy wisdom and folksy jokes, like Walt's observation on cell phones: "The trouble with being reachable is that people reach you." And that's the kind of gag Wingfield plays rely on - certainly it's amusing, but rarely boisterously hilarious.
But boisterous isn't the point here. It's intended to be gentle, unassuming, and not terribly challenging. But it also delivers an honesty and relatability in the interaction between Walt and his extraordinarily-ordinary neighbours that goes a long way toward explaining why fans keep coming back for Wingfield shows.
Of course, the engine that drives these plays isn't so much the writing or the direction (courtesy of Douglas Beattie), but Rod Beattie's solo performance. And he is, as ever, in fine form here, playing well upwards of a dozen characters, including favourites like Walt's stuttering advisor Freddy and The Squire, Walt's elderly neighbour. Beattie is smooth in his transitions, and makes each character distinct. The fun here isn't so much in finding out what happens, as it is in watching how Beattie does it.
"Folksy" isn't really my thing, so if it sounds like I'm damning with faint praise here, I probably am. But at the same time, there's much that's praise-worthy in this show. Wingfield fans will find plenty to enjoy in Lost and Found.
And one other PTE note: Prairie Theatre Exchange has revealed the "mystery show" in their 2011-2012 theatre season. They'll present the 2009 Fringe hit Altar Boyz from Feb. 23 - Mar. 11 next year. For the rest of the rundown on PTE's season, head here.