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The Downs, which is written and performed by Sheryl Scott, is the first to open, a past London Fringe Festival hit from the Steps & Stairs Theatre Company.Terry Manzo/The Blyth Festival

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  • Title: The Downs
  • Written and performed by: Sheryl Scott
  • Director: Desiree Baker
  • Company: A Steps & Stairs Theatre Company Production
  • Venue: The Blyth Festival Harvest Stage
  • City: Blyth, Ont.
  • Year: To Aug. 22, 2021

The Blyth Festival, a rural Ontario theatre company that’s been the birthing ground for significant new plays for more than 45 years now, held its first opening night in 18 months on Thursday – which was also the first opening night for its new outdoor Harvest Stage.

Now, I know theatre critics usually review plays, not actual theatres – but I thought this attractive amphitheatre out in Alice Munro country so lovely that I have to write about it first before I get to the actual show I saw on it.

The Blyth Festival Harvest Stage, in contrast to many other outdoor stages that have popped up under rented tents across Ontario this pandemic summer, is intended as a permanent addition to the company, a third stage to complement its indoor mainstage and nearby studio.

The stage was built for about $500,000 on a disused soccer pitch at the bottom of a slope in one corner of the Blyth Fairgrounds; it backs onto an old rail line that is now a cycling path that runs all the way to Goderich from Guelph. The theatre company is leasing the land from the township for $1 a year for the next five years.

Architect Jason Morgan and Blyth artistic director Gil Garratt came up with the delightful design of the stage itself. It has, as its main acting area, a flat thrust made out of pressure-treated wood that’s like a giant diamond-shaped patio. But what distinguishes the Harvest Stage from all the amphitheatres built generations ago across the province is that its two solid back walls are made out of recycled shipping containers.

These giant containers are each 40 feet long and have sizeable playing areas on their roofs – big enough to fit a band. Both of the platforms are accessible from the stage by a single staircase, which is wide enough to stage a swashbuckling swordfight on, but tucked to one side so it doesn’t dominate.

(The insides of the shipping containers are also in use behind the scenes: There are five air-conditioned dressing rooms in one; a production office, mechanical room and storage space in the other.)

The Blyth Festival Harvest Stage is intended as a permanent addition to the company, a third stage to complement its indoor mainstage and nearby studio.Terry Manzo/The Blyth Festival

The Harvest Stage seems built for epic storytelling – and will, one hopes, lead the company to stage sweeping shows such as its hit 2001/2002 production of The Outdoor Donnellys, in which a troupe of actors led by director Paul Thompson reimagined James Reaney’s classic plays about the legendary local Irish settlers of that name.

Right now, however, it is host to a series of five solo shows through to the first weekend in October.

The Downs, which is written and performed by Sheryl Scott, is the first to open, a past London Fringe Festival hit from the Steps & Stairs Theatre Company.

This visiting production, directed by Desiree Baker, doesn’t fill the Harvest Stage exactly, but does sit on it like an attractive centrepiece, as if it’s leaving room for the audience to ponder the possibilities.

Scott is originally from Miramichi, N.B., and has drawn on her family history in that region for this monologue delivered by a woman named Millie Johnson, who runs a farm and a family with her husband in that rural part of Canada in the 1950s.

Millie is a talker and has a great sense of humour – she certainly thinks she does, anyway. She delivers a non-stop string of stories about life on the farm and in the nearby small church-going community that she punctuates with her own explosions of laughter. Scott’s performance is a full-bodied one, complete with uncanny animal impressions that even a veteran of The Farm Show I was speaking with afterward was impressed by.

The most obvious point of comparison for The Downs is La Sagouine, the Acadian poet and playwright Antonine Maillet’s series of similarly homespun monologues about a washerwoman that actor-turned-senator Viola Léger toured for almost half a century. Indeed, Millie speaks to the audience while she’s folding laundry at first, and five dresses representing her daughters hang from a line on the stage.

Eventually, however, Millie’s anecdotes give over to a single storyline about giving birth, at age 40, to a sixth child, a boy with Down syndrome. There are certainly sentimental elements to what follows, and the overall structure of the show could be described as lopsided and full of tangents.

But I was utterly impressed by Scott’s committed characterization and the connection she forged through Millie with the Blyth Festival audience right off the bat, in particular the call-and-response she established so naturally with some of the women in attendance.

When Millie broke into a hymn at one point, all she had to do was wave a hand and a whole choir erupted around me. I didn’t know the words, but I did join in with the laughter and the tears of the audience. It’s a special little theatre they have out there in Blyth, and it just got a bit more special.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage.