The spectacle of four actors standing foursquare on the Manitoba Theatre Centre stage signals a change-up in the work of playwright Dan Needles.
His comedy, Ed's Garage, is precisely in the same city-meets-country milieu of Needles' popular Wingfield series, wherein a Bay Street stockbroker chucked it all for a simple life on the farm, only to discover it's not all that simple.
Wingfield became one of Canadian theatre's most enduring comedy franchises largely on the back of actor Rod Beattie, who ably played Wingfield and other characters alone on the stage.
To use an appropriately agricultural image, that franchise was pretty much milked dry after seven plays.
Beattie is obliged to share the stage with three other actors here, a signal Team Wingfield (Beattie, Needles and director Douglas Beattie) is branching out into more conventional theatre.
The transition is not graceful, however. Trading heavily in homespun wisdom and country-style psychology, the corn is not so much high as deep.
Ed (Beattie) runs an auto shop in the moribund farming community of Port Petunia, Ont. His side business is unofficially psychiatric: While you're getting your oil change, Ed will lubricate your rusty psyche with a combination of get-your-hands-dirty work therapy coupled with amateur psychology.
"You don't just talk to them," asserts Ed's right-hand man Nick (Douglas E. Hughes). "You fix them, like you fix their machines."
Ed's latest patient is Peter Hindle (Andrew Cecon), a hard-working guy trying to do the right thing by converting his parents' farmhouse to a bed-and-breakfast. He's been driven crazy by a petty small-town bureaucracy that seemingly exists to stymie his every effort.
When it is revealed he has come for court-mandated anger-management, it becomes clear he has come to the wrong place. A purty l'il psychologist named Cassandra (Tracy Penner) has put up her shingle next door to Ed's Garage. When the mistake is discovered, she reasonably agrees to share the responsibility of Peter's treatment with Ed. Romantic complications inevitably arise.
The premise does allow some laconic, out-of-left-field observational comedy, Wingfield-style. Ed drops some deft zingers targeted at the agrarian demographic ("He was a farmer... still is for tax purposes.") and offers his nice comic editorial on why the round hay bale signalled the fall of rural civilization.
But if this is a farm comedy, it's decidedly not organic.
Director Douglas Beattie moves characters around the stage like checkers on a cracker barrel checkerboard, and elicits uneven performances from his pieces. After all those years playing Walt Wingfield, Rod Beattie is clearly in his element rubbing his hands with oil rags and dispensing the requisite cornpone. Douglas E. Hughes likewise looks like he was born in baggy overalls.
Cecon mostly looks uncomfortable, and not just because of the distress of his character. A miscast Tracy Penner is especially at a disadvantage. If her character is warm and sympathetic, Penner comes off as brassy and strident. It feels like someone cast June Allyson in a role intended for Jean Arthur.
Set and costume design by Dana Osborne is functionally rustic, if not inspired, which is probably an apt description for this whole production.