REVIEW: Dear Johnny Deere brims with small town attitude

Rebecca Auerbach as Caroline and JD Nicholsen as Johnny in Dear Johnny Deere, now on stage at the Blyth Festival. Photo by Terry Manzo

Jennifer Cox is a communications graduate from the University of Windsor who is now a computer trainer for the Avon Maitland District School Board. She lives in Clinton with her husband and two children. She writes when she can find the time. This summer, she will review The Blyth Festival for Bullet News Huron.


Until yesterday I had never heard the name Fred Eaglesmith before. But after last night’s opening performance of Dear Johnny Deere at The Blyth Festival, I cannot get the song “Wilder Than Her” out of my mind. I’ve never been much of a country music fan but I have been searching iTunes for each of the 15 Eaglesmith songs from the play. Whether you are a dedicated Fredhead or not, you will be impressed with not only the music in the play but the way the story is told with the music, making it come alive.

I know that I’ve enjoyed a play when I come away realizing that I cared about what happened to the characters on the stage. I know it’s been a great experience when I leave the theatre feeling like I’ve been somewhere else for a while. Last night was no exception. With minimal but significant props and scene changes involving more movement of actors and musicians than props, Dear Johnny Deere transported me to a small farming town with dirt roads, farm houses, and vast fields and big old red barns. Especially during the final scene, under the soft light of the summer lanterns, not only could I hear Johnny and Caroline singing, it was easy to imagine the crickets and the frogs and the night time sounds and the light breeze in the air.

Written by Calgary playwright Ken Cameron, the world premiere of Dear Johnny Deere is the life story of a struggling small time Canadian farmer told through the songs of Fred Eaglesmith, a Canadian alternative country singer-songwriter raised in rural Southern Ontario. The farmer, Johnny, can hardly make ends meet and the play takes us through the challenges he and his wife Caroline face both on the farm and in their relationship.

I felt like I really got to know the characters, the nosey but kind hearted old neighbour Mac and of course Caroline and Johnny, the young farming couple trying to get ahead but not having much luck – in farming or marriage.

Mac, or McAllister, played by Jeff Culbert is the longstanding town newsman, despite the lack of news and interest in it. His charming, eccentric character took on the role of narrator at times, curmudgeonly helping the audience transition between present day and past history of the farm. I enjoyed that the play gave us the background story of the town and the farm itself, of how Caroline and Johnny met, and what their lives were like before they met. It all helped me want the best for Johnny and Caroline’s relationship and the success of the crops on their farm.

J.D. Nicholson and Rebecca Auerbach, the actors playing Johnny and Caroline, impressed me with not only their musical talents but also with their ability to use the music to tell me so much about who they are. There was never a time when they were singing that they were not Johnny and Caroline, they stayed so true to their characters. The smooth transitions into song were made easier by the clever placement of hooks on stage used to hang guitars, so that they seemed to disappear into the set when the actors were finished. It was almost like I never noticed how the instruments got into or out of the actors hands. I was impressed with how the actors seamlessly wove the music into the flow of the play. There was no awkward transition between speech and song. It really worked.

There were some great “small town” lines, giving the audience some laughs about the unique name of the local paper, Caroline’s “city jeans,” and Johnny’s big old car, Lucille, a Lincoln I think it was with a “Bench Seat Baby.”

I can’t forget to mention the villain of the play, Mike, played by Matthew Campbell, who made it easy for me to feel sincere dislike for his character as the evil city boy in frustrated business man disguise. I also can’t forget to mention the other talented musicians on stage, Capucine Onn and David Archibald, who amazed me by being on stage but never being in the way unless they were involved in the scene. They always fit into the scene perfectly, sometimes using their playing to interact directly with the characters on stage as with the violin in the song “Freight Train.” And I’m not sure if it’s widely known or not, but the chicken sounds from Ms. Onn were extraordinary! It took me a few seconds to realize there were not real chickens in the theatre! (This likely stood out for me more than other audience members due to my chicken phobia.)

I love it when a play gets me interested in something I didn’t know about before. Not that I am going to become a Fredhead tomorrow, but I certainly have a new appreciation for his music. His songs for me are now much more than down on your luck country songs. Although the play was full of music I would hesitate to call it a traditional musical as the plot and the songs were so nicely intertwined.

All in all I really enjoyed Dear Johnny Deere. The love story, the excellent music, the use of the strategically placed props on the stage as instruments, it all worked well together to give yet another satisfying, entertaining theatre experience at the Blyth Festival.

Dear Johnny Deere plays at the Blyth Festival until July 7. The Blyth Festival’s 2012 season runs until September 1 and also features Having Hope at Home by David S. Craig, The Lonely Diner: Al Capone in Euphemia Township by Beverley Cooper, and The Devil We Know by Cheryl Foggo and Clem Martini.

For ticket information, please visit the Blyth Festival website or call 1-877-862-5984.

Written by on June 23, 2012 in Blyth, Entertainment and Arts, Jennifer Cox - 2 Comments

2 Comments on "REVIEW: Dear Johnny Deere brims with small town attitude"

  1. Shane June 23, 2012 at 10:07 pm · Reply

    Bet if you took the time to explore the rest of Fred’s music or took the time to see him live you’d join the ranks of us Fredheads……He’ll steal your heart if you let him.

  2. Anonymous June 26, 2012 at 5:41 pm · Reply

    I have to see this now, sounds fantastic.

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