'The Downs' completes sold-out Phillips Studio run - Aug. 17, 2017
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
Sunday afternoon marked the culmination of a five-day sold-out run of shows for The Downs, written and performed by Sheryl Scott, at the Blyth Festival’s Phillips Studio.
In 2015, the London Free Press heralded that The Downs was the show at the city’s Fringe Festival audiences must see if they could only make room for one. It was with similar enthusiasm that the show made its way to Blyth. Critic Joe Belanger called the work an “artistic achievement” and said that Scott’s performance was a “tour de force” and among the best he had ever seen at the London Fringe Festival.
In an interview with The Citizen months ago, Artistic Director Gil Garratt said that a Festival regular made his way into Garratt’s office shortly after seeing the show at the Fringe Festival and told him it would be perfect for Blyth and Garratt agreed.
The Downs tells the story of Millie Johnson, the wife of a farmer living in northern New Brunswick in the 1950s. It’s set at Johnson’s kitchen table and the action rarely strays from the kitchen, giving the play the warm, cozy feeling of having a cup of tea with Johnson, an old friend.
Scott, portraying Johnson, walks in at the beginning of the show holding a basket full of laundry ready to be folded. She goes into detail about the work and how laundry day is her most dreaded of days. This is, of course, in the days before modern washing machines when all work had to be done by hand.
Johnson says that laundry on the farm is a grueling task and certainly not her favourite among her other tasks, like milking the cows, baking bread and tending to her five daughters.
Scott is laugh-out-loud funny as Johnson as she recounts hilarious stories of living in the community in a much simpler time. She tells the audience about church and choir members whose voices aren’t quite as angelic as they think they are and mishaps with laundry equipment – not to mention her trademark, homemade bread, which is a source of pride for the busy homemaker.
Johnson’s funny demeanour, however, takes a backseat as the play takes a turn and she and her husband have a sixth child. It’s a boy this time and the parents name him Scotty.
Johnson and her husband face challenges associated with Scotty being born a bit “different” than his siblings and other boys, but the family embraces him and pledges to love him all the same, despite community members and family turning their backs.
Scott traverses the story’s landscape in expert fashion, laughing one minute and crying the next, with the audience left only to follow suit.
With the birth of Scotty, Johnson says, there was plenty of learning to be done on all sides and it just took the family a little bit longer to realize it.
Director Desiree Baker keeps things simple on the stage, with much of the focus on Johnson and her folding of laundry while she tells the audience story after story.
When the conversation shifts to an elderly Italian neighbour or into the barn with Johnson’s husband, clear lines are drawn and the audience is transported with ease.
This Primordial Soup Theatre Company production was the first major show in the newly-renovated Phillips Studio and all five of its shows from Aug. 9-13 were sold out.