Review: THE DOWNS, Blyth Festival

by Lynn on August 18, 2021

in The Passionate Playgoer

The Harvest Stage, Blyth Festival Photo: Gil Garratt

Live on the Harvest Stage, Blyth Festival, Blyth, Ont. Until Aug. 22.

Written and performed by Sheryl Scott

Directed by Desirée Baker

Millie Johnson is a multi-tasker. As a farmer’s wife in rural New Brunswick in the early 1950s and the mother of five girls, she has to be. And she’s a wonderful story-teller. She tells stories about her observations of her neighbours and the farm animals; how a cow moos when it is suffering milking pains, and the various gradations of that mooing until we all know a cow is in distress and should be milked immediately!! Millie tells stories (and making herself laugh in the recollection) when she’s folding one of the full baskets of laundry she does regularly. Millie tells stories when she bakes her six (!) daily loaves of bread that are beautifully fragrant, fluffy-on-the-inside-crusty-on-the-outside. Millie tells stories while flitting back and for the in her kitchen, taking breaks only to put her feet up or dance. Millie loves to dance.

Millie is married to Adler Johnson whom she described this way: “For a man of few words, you know how to speak them perfectly.” Adler has a grade five education but his wisdom, smarts and perception go to create a decent, loving man and a perfect partner for Millie. Besides when they met for the first time at a dance he wore Aqua Velva cologne and Millie was instantly his. Millie says that there are three smells that are perfect in the world: the smell of her freshly baked bread, the smell of a new-born baby and Aqua Velva.

While Millie says that Adler is a man of few words, he also seems to convey a world of communication with a wink and a smile. One day he said to Millie that perhaps they could try and have a boy after five girls. Millie wasn’t sure. She was over 40-years-old. But Adler gave her a wink and a smile and nine months later, their son Scott was born. But he didn’t look ‘right’ as someone said. Scott was born with “the Downs,” Down Syndrome. The doctor said it would be a short life of hardship for the boy and suggested they put the boy in an institution. Millie’s caustic mother suggested the same thing. But Millie and her family had other ideas.

The Downs by Sheryl Scott is a charmer of a piece. It’s full of kindness that is obvious from watching Millie get through her day, laughing, dancing, folding and story-telling. It is loaded with home truths we all recognize no matter where we live or our marital situation. Sheryl Scott has created in Millie and her family the bedrock of decency, in which family is the most important thing, and every member of that family, no matter if they look ‘right’ or not, gets unconditional love. Scott has created quirky language that will have us all trying to remember a turn of phrase—that line about Adler—“For a man of few words you know to speak them perfectly” is a case in point. Millie is a quiet philosopher when she says that we don’t find our worth in other people’s opinions—a philosophy we would be wise to remember.

Sheryl Scott has endless energy as Millie. She is on the move for almost the whole play, taking only a few breaks to put her feet up and catch her breath before she is off on another tear around the kitchen. Desirée Baker has directed the production with a clear eye for detail. Five dresses, in varying sizes. hang on the laundry line indicating the ages of the five girls in that family. A racoon hat sits on a ledge—it was referenced in one of Millie’s stories; there is a crocheted blanket draped over a chair and there is a kitchen table with a few props. Everything that needs to be said about that neat kitchen is in that simple design. Everything that needs to be said about Millie as a gracious, loving woman is in Sheryl Scotts lovely performance.

Ms Baker directs with subtlety. At the end of the show Millie bends low to take Scott’s hands (this is suggested) to dance. He is obviously a small child then. And as Millie continues to dance she stands up straight as if dancing with a tall man. Is this a spoiler or just pointing out a sensitive director telling us gently that the doom and gloom of the doctor, about Scott’s life expectancy was totally wrong.  

A few words on the Harvest Stage. In the middle of a pandemic, when Gil Garratt, the artistic director of the Blyth Festival had to put the season on hold last year and close the indoor theatre in Memorial Hall, Garratt and the good people of the festival did something wild—they created another stage. They found a soccer field that had been abandoned for 30 years and decided to build a permanent outdoor stage there. June 6 there was nothing. Last weekend there was a wonderful wood structure with a wood stage and space for an eager audience that could be socially distanced and safe. The space is called The Harvest Stage and Gil Garratt stood on it, and in an emotional speech welcomed us back.

The audience sits in comfortable chairs on a concrete curve around the stage. Fresh sod was laid between the audience and the stage and we were kindly told not to walk on the sod because it was fragile. There is a covering in the structure over the audience. Five large storage containers are ‘back-stage’ which are for offices, an air-conditioned dressing-room, and other uses. Nathanya Barnett  the able, efficient, kind house-manager assures patrons at a certain place in seating that the sun will not be in their eyes as the sun is setting. They didn’t ask her because she was mindful that the sun might be in their eyes. Efficiency and consideration like this are golden. When the show finished it was dark. As we turned to leave the space, I see that the whole path up and around the theatre is illuminated with small, bright lights, allowing the audience to leave safely. Gil Garratt, his troupe, the Harvest Stage, the Blyth Festival and the work they do there, are magical.

The Blyth Festival Presents:

Plays until: August, 22, 2120.

Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.

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