Since its Toronto premiere in 1999, Michael Healey’s The Drawer Boy has been one of the most produced plays in the United States. After seeing Port City Playhouse’s production, I can see why. In the hands of director Jennifer Lyman, The Drawer Boy is a funny – but sometimes painful – examination of friendship and the power of storytelling.
Healey’s The Drawer Boy is based on the creation of another play, the 1972 work The Farm Show, which was a landmark of alternative theatre, a “collective creation” by the Théâtre Passe Muraille (Theatre Without Walls) in Toronto. A team of actors (including Healey) traveled to rural communities throughout Canada, experiencing farm life and interviewing farmers.The actors constructed The Farm Show from that work, and proceeded to tour the play extensively throughout the country, sometimes telling communities their own stories. In The Drawer Boy, Miles (Daniel G. Westbrook), an actor from Toronto, goes to visit a farm owned by two aging veterans, Angus and Morgan. Angus (P. Spencer Tamney) is the “drawer boy” of the title, whose architectural talent – and longterm memory – have been wiped away by a war injury. His best friend Morgan (Elliot Bales) provides the stability, guidance, and routine that Angus needs to get by. Miles is willing to work the farm in exchange for a chance to document the lives of the two men, but in doing so is in danger of disturbing the delicate balances that Morgan has established on the farm.
The set, designed by Director Jennifer Lyman, is simple and effective. There are old-fashioned appliances, a bread box, a kitchen cabinet, a wooden table and chairs. A screen door to one side marks the wall of the house. Tools and some other odds and ends fill the space, and the end result is a kitchen that feels lived in. That’s a particularly impressive feat considering the fact you can see the plain wall of the black box behind the set pieces. But I stared at the cast iron skillet and thought about cornbread, and damned if there wasn’t a loaf of bread in the breadbox and milk in the refrigerator. In fact, I was more than a little confused the first time a member of the crew set the stage during a transition, since it looked so much like a new character sneaking into the house to clean the kitchen.
If the set seems ready to be lived in, it’s Bales’s Morgan who does most of the living. Bales is built for the part, a big, bluff man who looks like he’d be comfortable working with his hands. He inhabits the stage-space in a way that makes it feel real, and you can tell from watching him whether Morgan is finishing a day of work or ready to start one. The other characters sometimes feel like they’re walking off a stage; Morgan is going to tend the cows. His emotions feel real as well, whether concern and love for Angus, laughter over the asinine chores he gives to Miles (egg-swapping, gravel washing), or sadness as he tries to cope with changes in the life he’s built for himself. Since Morgan is the character with the most power I could see him coming across as a villain in some productions, but Bales is so well intentioned that it’s never a danger.
As the damaged Angus, Tamney has the most difficult task of the three actors. Angus’s war-time trauma has left him with memory problems and other neurological issues, and it must be tempting to play those for laughs. Tamney has some of the best comic scenes of the evening, but the audience is never laughing at Angus; Tamney and Lyman must have spent some time in rehearsal making sure that he never took the brunt of the humor. By the end of The Drawer Boy I was a little tired of Angus’s flattened and childlike affect, but that’s mostly because I wanted to see more emotion out of the character. Angus has a long, hard road through the show as he recovers his memory, and Tamney sometimes felt like he was holding back the pain and excitement the character was feeling. Luckily, Bales comes to the rescue here – if we’re not sure how unique or emotionally charged Angus’s experiences are, we have Morgan’s reactions to guide us. The connection between the two characters is really the core of the production.
Much of the drama in The Drawer Boy, of course, comes from the fact that Miles is left out of that connection. City-slicker Miles is clearly out of his element on the farm, but also out of his element dealing with the emotional connection between Angus and Morgan. While Miles is comfortable acting and telling stories, he has less experience living life than the older men. He doesn’t understand Angus’s dependence on Morgan; nor does he understand Morgan’s emotional attachment to Angus. That distance from the situation can sometimes leave Westbrook looking like he’s the only person on stage having to act a part. But Miles’s increasing emotional investment in the situation is matched by Westbrook’s increasing comfort being in his body and dealing with the other men on stage.
The production has a few minor issues. The staging can sometimes unnecessarily call attention to the fact that you’re watching a play, like when the actors walk around the audience or mime the opening of nonexistent windows at the front of the stage. In the end, though, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. It was the theatrical nature of The Farm Show that allowed it to reveal the extraordinary in people’s daily lives; it’s Miles’s retelling of Morgan and Angus’s story that offers the possibility of growth for the three men.
So remember that The Drawer Boy is just a play, and go see what it has to tell you.
Running Time: Approximately two hours, with one 15-minute intermission.
The Drawer Boy plays through March 9, 2013 at Port City Playhouse – 1819 North Quaker Lane, in Alexandria, VA. For tickets, Purchase tickets online or at the box office.