Rod Beattie on ice

Heralded Canadian actor returns for another go around as Walt Wingfield

By Liam Lahey

   
   

Rod Beattie as Walt Wingfield in the
original production of Wingfield On Ice

Rod Beattie is enjoying the weather in Victoria.

The veteran actor of 13-years experience at the Stratford Festival said the pleasant climes of British Columbia suit him just fine, and for more than just the mild winter.

Beattie is perhaps best known for his portrayal of Walt Wingfield, the central figure in playwright Dan Needle's popular series of comedies about the adventures of a former Bay Street tycoon turned country farmer.

Once considered a pariah within the theatre community some 15 years ago, the Wingfield series is now in high-demand nationwide, which is why Beattie enjoys previewing each Wingfield chapter in Victoria, where the theatre audiences are as varied as they are receptive, and the press doesn't travel west of Vancouver, he said.

"Victoria is a terrific theatre town," he says. "It's a good indicator for us to gauge the performance. It gives us a chance to work out in front of an audience without being in the spotlight."

The fifth installment in Needle's series is Wingfield On Ice, appearing at Toronto's Winter Garden Theatre from Dec. 27 through to Feb. 23. The first frost comes to Persephone Township (a mythical rural community north of T.O.) as Walt and Maggie Wingfield are pregnant, and are preparing to bear their first child. But Walt becomes alarmed when old feuds that divide his neighbours and disturb the tranquility of the community arise. His attempts to mend other people's fences meet with a resistance as stiff and cold as the weather itself.

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"Walt's idyllic notion of a community built on joy, love and tolerance is broken," Beattie explains. "Now he sees people slagging at one another all the time."

Beattie says he's yet to grow tired of playing Walt and his friends. He speaks of the character lovingly.

"I quite admire him (Walt Wingfield)," he says. "He's managed to do something with his life many people can only dream of doing, and that's abandoning a lucrative lifestyle that didn't suit his spiritual needs, to go out on a limb. And he continually goes out on a limb."

Moreover, Beattie is a one-man show, playing a bevy of characters - and convincingly. However, he doesn't see the Wingfield plays in that light.

"I don't feel it's a one-person show. It was originally, but it's not really acting," he continues. "Acting is something that happens on stage between actors. I feel this is a cast of people, so I don't feel alone and I don't feel as if I have to carry the show . . . perhaps this comes from the luxury of doing it for this long."

   

Rod Beattie as Walt Wingfield in the
original production of Wingfield On Ice

   

Perhaps it's also due to the familial connection. Beattie's brother Douglas directs the play, he was also responsible for the television production of Letter From Wingfield Farm, the first play in the series that won a 1991 Gemini Award prior to airing on the CBC in 1998-99.

"I suspect he's a very clever man," he says of his younger sibling. "He's an extremely good director and he has a clever way of dealing with actors. He understands the need to work frustrations through . . . I trust him, and not because he's my brother, but because I respect his work."

It could be argued the success of the Wingfield series can be attributed to its ability to connect with the Canadian identity, yet Beattie admits to being at a loss to explain why.

"I have my suspicions. One is it flies in the face of accepted wisdom about theatre that says you can't have satire without malice," he says. "Another is a great deal of Canadian television comedy is simply malicious and I don't buy it. I don't find it funny.

"I believe the appreciation in Canada and for this kind of humour in general is that it isn't at someone's expense."

That appreciation left the CBC dumbfounded at the series' huge ratings success on the telly in 1999, Beattie recalled.

"They were worried about promoting it because they didn't know how, and they didn't really," he chuckles. "But when they asked us how to pitch it to their viewing audience, we said to describe it as being slow moving and soft hitting."

Wingfield On Ice plays at the Winter Garden Theatre (189 Yonge Street), Dec. 27 to Feb. 23. Tickets ($28-$55) can be purchased by calling TicketKing at 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333.

- Photographs by Terry Manzo, courtesy Mirvish Productions

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