Written by Michael Healey. Directed by Dean Patrick Fleming. At Hudson Village Theatre, July 4-21, 2019
Theatre often pats itself on the back for being a purveyor of truth telling. But there’s also a long tradition of plays which warns that the truth will not so much set us free as plunge us into existential freefall. Michael Healey’s Governor General Award-winning The Drawer Boy stands in line with that tradition which includes Ibsen’s The Wild Duck and O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh.
Healey based his play on a real-life theatrical project called The Farm Show, an early proponent of what’s now known as verbatim theatre. In 1972, Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille sent a group of actors to a farming community near Clinton, Ontario, to discover the realities of living off the land. The resulting docudrama met with great acclaim, novelist Michael Ondaatje describing it as the first genuine Canadian play.
Yet the process clearly raised some ethical questions about, for instance, appropriating other people’s stories for entertainment, or exposing private details to the public glare.
Healey’s The Drawer Boy runs with these questions and spins a cleverly constructed yarn involving two farmers with a decades-old secret, and an enthusiastic young actor intent on putting their lives on the stage.
The actor, whom Curtis Legault plays with the appealing giddiness of an off-leash puppy in the countryside, is called Miles. That’s also the name of one of the Farm Show actors, Miles Potter, whom Healey consulted while researching his play (to make things even more meta, Potter directed the first production of The Drawer Boy in 1999).
The two farmers whose door Miles knocks upon are Angus, who suffers from brain damage inflicted during the London Blitz, and Morgan, who cares for his old friend and nightly soothes him with the bittersweet story about their doomed love affairs with two tall English women.
The similarities with Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men are unmistakable. Angus is slow-witted and child-like, and Morgan looks out for him with a mixture of devotion and canny self-interest. The plot also follows a similar plot in that the pair’s best laid plans go awry. Angus, the Drawer Boy of the title, is a dab hand at architectural draughtsmanship and the two men longed to live happily ever after with their loved ones in a home Angus had designed. But Fate intervened, the women died, and they’re now buried on a hill close to the farm.
One night Miles overhears this story and turns it into theatrical gold, its physical reenactment on the stage seemingly liberating Angus from his dependency on Morgan, while also plunging him into panic and confusion. But is the story even true?
Healey’s play skillfully juggles with these elements so that it works on several layers, all the while throwing up yet more questions.
At times it veers into sentimentality. Perhaps inevitably, given the play’s 20 year-old-provenance, its depiction of a mentally disabled adult behaving like a wide-eyed child has the retro feel of, say, a Rain Man. And given Angus perceives his own mental age as being close to the twentysomething Miles, this infantilising hardly makes sense anyway.
Thankfully, Michel Perron, who played the part at Centaur Theatre some years back, gives a characteristically precise and powerful performance, suggesting the simmering rage of the ill-fated Angus. Brian Dooley has the less showy role of the stoical, hard-bitten Morgan but brings to it a quiet gravitas that counteracts the irrepressible enthusiasm of both Angus and Miles.
Dean Patrick Fleming, directing his first play here since taking over as artistic director (he guest-directed Art last year), finds a nice balance between the raw pain in the lives of the men and the comedy inherent in their interaction with a naïve townie excitedly playing at farmers. Much of the rich humour comes from Morgan’s guying Miles into carrying out phony chores, such as having him wash gravel one rock at a time – though Healey has a delightful surprise in store for us regarding Miles’s gullibility.
As well as being robustly performed by its three-strong cast, the production also looks gorgeous. Peter Vatsis’s design provides an impressionistic sense of the farmhouse’s rustic simplicity and the starlit expanse beyond, while his lighting design glows through the wooden slats to mark the changes in mood.
The Drawer Boy plays to July 21. More information at villagetheatre.ca