Anyone who has experienced Dan Needles’ Wingfield productions knows that the writer is a comic master. While his play The Team on the Hill contains some genuine laugh-out-loud lines, it tends towards the dramatic side of things, so Wingfield fans should be prepared for some darkness.
The play, which premiered in 2013, is perfect fare for Blyth’s largely rural audience. It is 1970, and three generations are in conflict over the family cattle farm. Austin Ransier, the grandfather (Layne Coleman), has made some bad decisions over the years, which required his son Ray (Tony Munch) to step in and save the farm. Things, however, are still precarious, and Ray does have regrets about giving up his job working on Great Lakes freighters in order to come back to the farm. Larry, the grandson (Kurtis Leon Baker), just out of agricultural college, has some modern ideas that he wants to try out like soybean production, but he is in constant conflict with Ray who is welded to his own way of thinking. Austin has been put reluctantly out to pasture by Ray and he pines for something to do, but it doesn’t help that he has dementia and has to be constantly watched. Ray’s much put-upon wife Marion (Julie Tamiko Manning) tries to keep the peace in the household while she works at a bank to bring in extra money. (The bank is also her escape hatch away from the family conflict.) Larry’s girlfriend Leanne (Lucy Meanwell) strikes up a warm relationship with Austin, which gives her a unique perspective about the farm’s history and importance to the Ransier family.
Both the Ransier farm and a neighbouring farm have been offered big bucks by a developer wanting to build a golf course. The title of the play comes from a vision that Austin keeps having, about seeing his farmer neighbour Albert, now departed, on a nearby hill with a team of matched Belgian horses. Will Albert’s widow accept the developer’s handsome offer and force the issue? What to do, what to do…
Needles knows how to write grumpy old man, and Coleman steals the show with the great lines he has been given. For example, Austin calls old men like himself “forgetters”. It is like a comic routine surrounded by a play. Manning gives a lovely performance as Marion, always a calm harbour in the eye of the storm. Baker is solid as the eager and emotional Larry. Alas, while Munch is always strong with character portrayal, he swallows his words, or rushes them, or something, and as a result, throws away his lines, particularly in the middle, but then, I’ve been complaining about Munch’s bad acting habit for years. As for Meanwell, she keeps the same pattern of speaking throughout without any modulations to her voice, which results in a pretty static performance. Luckily, she has little to say.
The director is Blyth’s associate artistic director Severn Thompson, whose father, Paul Thompson, headed the collective of actors who created the seminal docu-play The Farm Show in 1972. It seems fitting that she directs The Team on the Hill about a farm family in crisis. Needles, in his program notes, states that he’s very interested in succession, and the passing of land from one generation to the next with all the problems that that entails. Thompson has ensured that the conflict between grandfather, father and grandson is front and centre. The verbal fights are fierce, and Thompson and her actors go for the jugular, but then, Needles has given them great writing.
Kelly Wolf’s set is interesting. The farmhouse porch and kitchen are separated by a scrim, and this set piece revolves to bring one or the other to the front, while still keeping the other visible. The sides of this set piece are also in use as backdrops to the ancillary stages to the left and right. One is the barn, and the other is a bench near the river. As for the river and its waterfall, Wolf has crafted a dramatic blue/green sweep of ribbon that dominates the stage beside the farmhouse. We see it throughout the play, although its importance does not become apparent until the end.
The Team on the Hill is certainly entertaining, containing enough happiness and sadness to make it a satisfying theatrical experience.
Blyth Festival, The Team on the Hill by Dan Needles, directed by Severn Thompson, Blyth Memorial Hall, Blyth ON, Jul. 31 to Sept. 5, 2019.