Phil and Ned as Foils in Groundhog Day
One of the most brilliant decisions the GHD creative team made was to expand Ned Reyerson’s role and use him as a foil for Phil. (Show and staging spoilers below)
Tim Minchin gave Ned the heartbreaking song “Night Will Come,” to teach Phil that while you can’t always save everyone, you can’t give up on life either. You have to keep going and keep striving for better days.
Danny Rubin gave Ned’s character a backstory that turned him from annoying punchline into a foil for Phil. Ned has experienced the worst life has to offer and gained wisdom from it, while Phil has allowed himself to become angry and divorced from the world. In many ways Phil hates Ned because he hates himself.
However, what I really want to talk about is Matthew Warchus’ direction and his use of beautiful, understated blocking to illustrate the two characters’ respective journeys.
When Phil and Ned first meet, Phil is center stage and Ned crosses from stage right to talk with him. Towards the end of their conversation, Ned puts his right hand on Phil’s left shoulder. It is a supportive gesture, as if Ned can tell that Phil is in trouble. Of course, this is before the loop begins, so Phil brushes off this support. He is unable to see Ned as anything more than an annoyance. Another “half-wit bastard” as it were.
In Act 2, after Phil has taken Rita’s words to heart and is trying to engage in the world in a meaningful way, he and Ned meet yet again. Except this time, their roles are reversed.
After Phil apologizes for punching Ned, he leaves him center stage while he crosses to stage right to retrieve Ned’s wallet and then returns. The two men have switched positions literally and figuratively. This time it is Phil who places a supportive right hand on Ned’s left shoulder as he asks Ned if he’d like to get a cup of coffee. Ned agrees, as he is able to accept the help Act 1 Phil could not. As a man raising children while grieving his wife, it must be a relief to Ned to be the one receiving support instead always having to give.
The final note between Phil and Ned is when they become one during “Night Will Come.” As the song ends and Phil realizes he’ll never be able to save the old man, he begins walking behind Ned, eventually falling into step with him for the final verse as he accepts that despite not being able to help Mr. Jensen, he has to keep going and striving to do good no matter what. (Andy talks about this moment in his SAG Foundation interview. Go to 5:35.) After “Night Will Come” ends Ned is center stage and Phil is stage right of him, again placing his right hand on Ned’s left shoulder.
Although they do not interact again in the show, both men participate in “Seeing You.” They sing of being here and being fine. Phil, having travelled the farthest, has learned to live in the now and see people and world for who they are, not his perception of them. Ned has been reminded that while he was on a good path, he can ask for, and receive, the support of others and will be ok despite his loss.
Sorry for the essay, it’s just this show has so many layers to discover and share. I have more to say on the subject, but this is long enough for now.
Also, I know some folks only experience with the show is via the audio boots and/or cast recording, so I want to give you an idea of why I love this show much and the direction is a large part of that.