By Kelly Monaghan, May 14, 2023
Like wildflowers after a drought-quenching rain, theatre is busting out all over in the tiny town of Blyth as its eponymous festival continues to emerge from the recent pandemic.
COVID-19 was a challenging time for theatres all across Canada, but the Blyth Festival’s artistic director, Gil Garratt, turned adversity into opportunity with a number of shrewd moves.
First, was the creation of the Harvest Stage in 2021; an outdoor venue nestled at the back of the Blyth Fairgrounds a short stroll from the Festival’s home at the Memorial Hall on Queen Street.
With a semi-shaded seating area that harkened back to ancient Greece, the Harvest Stage was an instant hit. Audiences quickly fell in love with the experience of watching great theatre as the sun set over bucolic rural Huron County.
Since then, seating has been added and now totals 385. The folding chairs have given way to permanent seating that allows audiences to pick their seats from a seating chart, just like the much larger Shaw and Stratford Festivals. Mature maple trees have been planted in the house left, providing welcome shade from the setting sun.
Garratt also tackled the perennial problem of providing affordable housing for the actors and designers who create theatrical magic during the summer months by purchasing a four-unit building with a total of eight bedrooms. It was a major, not to mention risky investment, but a three-year campaign to rapidly pay down the mortgage is proceeding apace.
All of this will enable Blyth to mount an impressive seven-show 2023 season.
Blyth Festival Playbill 2023
The highlight of the season is “The Donnellys: A Trilogy” by James Reaney. These three plays (“Sticks and Stones,” “The St. Nicholas Hotel,” and “Handcuffs”) tell the tale of the infamous “Black Donnellys,” a family of Irish immigrants who, in the 1840s, settled in the small Ontario town of Biddulph, northwest of London.
The Donnellys were a fractious bunch by all accounts and over the years they made enemies, so many in fact that a vigilante mob slaughtered most of the family in February 1880.
Rachel Jones, Randy Hughson. Photo Terry Manzo
Perhaps needless to say, this story quickly assumed the rank of legend. The story has spawned numerous folk songs, a number of books, an American television series, and perhaps most fittingly, The Black Donnellys Brewing Company, whose wares include Vigilante Session IPA and Shillelagh Law Belgian Quad.
Reaney’s poetic and symbolically complex Donnelly plays opened in Toronto in the mid-1970s and were immediately recognized as a landmark moment in Canadian theatre. Canadian theatre historian Alan Filewod saw the plays as a “quantum leap” and called the national tour of the trilogy in 1977 “one of the great epic moments in Canadian theatre history.”
For this revival, the plays have been “abridged and adapted” by Garratt, with the blessing of the Reaney estate (who died in 2008). Stratford veteran Randy Hughson leads a cast of ten, most of whom will play multiple roles.
Given the iconic place “The Donnellys: A Trilogy” occupies in Canadian theatre lore, this revival may well come to be regarded as one of the most important theatrical events of the year.
The other four plays represent more familiar Blyth Festival fare.
The world premiere of “Liars at a Funeral” by Sophia Fabiilli (June 14 to July 8), which was cancelled by the pandemic in 2020, is a farce about a grandmother who fakes her death in an attempt to bring her dysfunctional family together.
Canadian theatre legend Nora McLellan will take on the lead role of Mavis in “Liars at a Funeral.” You might remember Nora from her performances at the Shaw and Stratford Festivals, and her star turn in Mark Crawford’s hilarious comedy “The Birds and the Bees.”
“The Waltz” by Filipina-Canadian Marie Beath Badian (July 12 to July 29) is a romantic comedy about second-generation teenagers who “meet cute” in a remote lakefront cabin in northern Saskatchewan. The follow-up to Badian’s hit, “Prairie Nurse,” is a remounting of another Covid-cancelled show, this one from last season.
Mark Crawford Returns to the Blyth Festival
Another world premiere is “Chronicles of Sarnia” by Matt Murray (August 3 to 18), a comedy starring Severn Thompson about an attempt to create a time capsule that will capture the essence of this southwestern Ontario town on the border with Michigan.
“Chronicles of Sarnia” will be directed by Miles Potter. Potter has been connected to the Blyth festival since its inception, performing in and directing many productions including “The Farm Show.”
“Chronicles of Sarnia” features a stellar cast including actor/playwright Mark Crawford who whose hits include “The Birds and The Bees,” “Stag and Doe,” and “Bed and Breakfast,” just to name a few.
Stratford Festival fans might remember Bailey from his appearances in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “An Ideal Husband,” “Richard III” and “All’s Well That Ends Well.”
The plays comprising “The Donnellys: A Trilogy “ will run in repertory (shades of Shaw and Stratford!) on the Harvest Stage in the evenings throughout the season while the other four plays will be presented in succession at afternoon matinees at the Memorial Hall stage.
Not only will this arrangement allow theatregoers to see two shows on the same day, but should inclement weather force a cancellation at the Harvest Stage, the show can be moved into the 372-seat house at Memorial Hall.
Dining Options in Blyth
If you’re thinking of seeing two shows in a day, be aware that dining options in tiny Blyth are limited to Cowbell Brewery at the southern edge of town and the Blyth Inn (a.k.a. “The Boot”), across the street from Memorial Hall.
Complicating the dining logistics is the fact that Cowbell does not take reservations during the summer months. Therefore, the pro tip is to make your dinner reservation well in advance at the Blyth Inn (519-523-9381).
During most Friday and Saturday nights from June 23 to August 26, Blyth’s local Canadian Legion Branch 420 and the Legion Ladies Auxiliary will be serving up “country suppers” just around the corner from Memorial Hall at 5:30 pm. Tickets for these meals are $25 and are available through the Festival box office. A full list of dates is available at https://blythfestival.com/country-suppers/
The picturesque and rather touristy town of Bayfield, a 20-minute drive from Blyth, has several nice restaurants and is another option for dinner between matinee and evening shows.
Membership in the Blyth Festival has benefits beyond the warm feeling that you are supporting one of Ontario’s best theatre companies. For a minimum donation of $50, members are entitled to a range of discounts from local merchants including B&Bs, wineries, and restaurants, something to bear in mind if you are planning a multi-day visit.
Full details on membership and a list of participating merchants can be found at https://blythfestival.com/membership
As Artistic Director Garratt likes to say, “You’ve simply never had more reasons to come to Blyth.”
Blyth Festival Schedule and Show Links
June 14-July 8 Liars at a Funeral
June 22-September 1 Sticks and Stones – The Donnellys: A Trilogy Part 1
July 12-July 29 The Waltz
July 13-September 2 St Nicholas Hotel – The Donnellys: A Trilogy Part 2
August 1-September 3 Handcuffs – The Donnelly’s: A Trilogy Part 3
August 2-September 9 The Real McCoy
August 3-August 18 Chronicles of Sarnia
Kelly Monaghan divides his time between Stratford and the Connecticut shore. He chronicles his love affair with Canadian theatre at OntarioStage.com and creates theatre-themed t-shirts at TheatreTops.com
Blyth Company Members on The Performers Podcast
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