The Drawer Boy
by Michael Healey
Theatre New Brunswick
When a phenomenon like The Drawer Boy appears -- in this case, a play that absolutely everybody loves at first sight, and which wins every prize around (including, remarkably, a Governor General's Award) -- I'm invariably skeptical. If it's that popular, I think, it must be sentimental, a machine for generating pat emotions and making people feel good about themselves. If it wins that many awards, it's probably pretentious or showy. And this play, in outline, does sound rather like that sort of thing -- reviewers and PR folks call it "touching" and "heartwarming" and "moving," and make you expect that, like most plays that want to tug at your heartstrings, it'll pretty much bypass your brain on the way.
When I read the script, I was astonished to discover that this relatively unknown playwright had crafted a story, and a context, and three characters, that repaid every bit of attention you could pay them. You didn't have to stop thinking in order to be moved; in fact, the more closely you thought about the play, the more engaged you became in what the characters were doing, and why, and what it might mean to you.
The next step in this process should be pretty obvious: I started to get worried that when it came to the crunch, when Theatre New Brunswick put it on the stage, it would fall apart -- that it might become sentimental and clichéd in the performance, or degenerate into slapstick, or turn out to be unplayable for the actors.
I'm greatly relieved to be able to say that that didn't happen. The TNB production of The Drawer Boy is the most enjoyable, engaging piece of theatre I've seen on the Playhouse stage in some years. This is a surprise to me -- a pleasant one, but a surprise nonetheless -- for a number of reasons.
It would be easy to dismiss the plot as, well, sentimental claptrap. The basic situation is that Miles, a young, aspiring actor and writer, is part of a Toronto troupe in the idealistic early seventies who are going to "find out about farming" by living with farmers and assembling what they learn into a play (this actually did happen, and resulted in the successfulThe Farm Show). The farm Miles invites himself onto is run by two bachelor brothers . One of them, however, Angus, because of an injury suffered during the war, has no memory: as Morgan explains (after we've had a chance to watch Angus and start figuring this out for ourselves), "Only thing that makes Angus different is he can't remember from one minute to the next. He only knows right now." As Miles learns more about the history of the two -- he overhears Morgan telling Angus the comforting story about how they grew up, the artistic "drawer boy" and the practical "farmer boy" together, and went off to war, and fell in love, and lost their loves in a car crash -he converts what he learns into drama. When the two come home from attending the first rehearsal, we discover that Angus' frozen brain, because of the power and strangeness of watching someone else tell, in public, the story Morgan's been telling him for years, is beginning crack open and thaw, and memories are popping back like grass through concrete. Everything that happens -- how we learn that Morgan's been telling a lie all these years, and why, and how much power the simple telling of a story can have -- follows from this. It should be clear that this "recovered memory through the miracle of art" could easily be played for sympathy alone. It isn't.
It would be easy to misplay Angus as comic relief, or a helpless victim, or as an exercise in bravura acting like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man.But Brian McKay, with his wonderfully mobile and sensitive puzzled attention, his just slightly awkward walk, the way he gives Angus a desperately held dignity, and the restrained and yet intense way he makes the breakthrough after attending the rehearsal believable, both got our sympathy and retained his pride. No passive victim of this terrible injury, McKay's Angus never extracts a bit of unearned pity. Would someone who knows about brain injuries find this plausible? I have no idea, but it worked for us in the Playhouse.
Similarly, it would be easy to misplay Morgan as bullheaded, and maybe just a little sadistic, dutiful caregiver, who is suddenly converted at the end to a sensitive, responsive, one. Lee J. Campbell lets him be a whole lot deeper than that. From the beginning, we can see him finding strategies to help Angus manage his problems, we can even see him trying to hide his panic as he begins to realize that letting Miles stay with them may derail the process he and Angus have worked out, with so mucheffort, to live and work together. And we can even see, behind his wittily and somewhat cruelly stringing Miles along, that this, too, might be strategic.
And finally, It would be easy for Christian Barry to misplay Miles as a hopelessly naive, gullible and ignorant city boy, suddenly sophisticated at the end. Miles' ignorance about farms and farming is pretty hard to believe, even for a Rochdale drama student -- and in fact, through the middle of the script, it bothered me because of its unbelievability. Surely, I thought, Healey could have come up with a more plausible device than Morgan's explanation that "rotating the crops" meant getting up at three in the morning to dig up one field and move the hay to another field. Even a Rochdale kid would know better than that. Except that at the end of the play Miles pretends to have broken the milking machine -- and you think, wait a minute. You think this partly because Barry has earned your respect, and partly because of all the other coherent, consistent threads -- sandwiches, spoonfuls of water, the drawings of the dream house Angus can't remember making -- running through the play and making it feel coherent and planned. Wait a minute; maybe he knew all along. When, you think, did Miles start playing along with Morgan? Was it before or after he was told to go out and move the eggs from one hen to another so they'd get used to it, and wouldn't feel so badly when the eggs were finally taken away altogether?
The most considerable achievement here is the way David Sherren and his company find just the right knife-edge balance between feeling and comedy -- so that, at a number of points, you know you shouldn't laugh but you can't help it. Or -- the same moment described another way -- you know it's funny but you try to suppress the laugh because it's so serious. When a play can get to that space you know it's working, and this one gets there pretty often.
Technically, the TNB production does very neatly what it needs to. I don't like blackouts, usually; they seem arbitrary and synthetic. In this production, for some reason they didn't bother me. I suppose it might be partly because of the way the lovely and subtle music (the sound design is by Leigh Rivenbark, but the provenance of the music is uncredited in the program, as far as I can see) bridged the gaps and punctuated some scenes. Jamie Atkinson's set is nicely workable and flexible and Chris Saad's lighting is effective -- and occasionally, between them, moving, when Angus is out counting the stars or the sunrise breaks through behind the hills off through the kitchen window.
This play is not the kind of theatre I usually like -- there's nothing particularly "theatrical" about it, except perhaps the way it focuses us entirely on one room, in a way that almost no movie or TV show ever does. It doesn't play any theatrical tricks; there are no time and space changes; the kitchen remains a kitchen and people go and come in it in a perfectly recognizable way. But somehow the way it made the telling of story, and more particularly the situated telling, the telling by this person, to that one, for that purpose ("I kept telling it," Morgan says, "because it made you feel better"), into the main dramatic event was theatre enough for me.
I suspect people who complain that TNB isn't adventurous enough will like this anyway, and I hope people who complain that there just aren't enough good stories about everyday people will find themselves stretched to think beyond what might seem clichés. This, I hate to have to agree, is the kind of show that everybody should like. It's running for the rest of the week in Fredericton; don't miss it if you can help it. Don't be scared off by the advertising slogan: "a touching comedy about true friendship." It is that, but it's a whole lot more too.
After this review was posted, David Sherren wrote to point out that Morgan and Angus actually aren't brothers, which "makes Morgan's sacrifice (to care for his friend for 30 years) all the more complex."