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A CurtainUp Review
The Drawer Boy
By Elyse Sommer
The Drawer Boy is a modest story about a young actor who asks two farmers for permission to hang around to research a play about rural life. The play he adapts from a story he overhears while living with the men, turns out to be the tip of an iceberg of frozen memories.
The play which is billed as a comedy-drama has its genesis in a project launched some thirty years when a Toronto actors' collective went to a farming community in rural central Ontario to work and live with local farmers in order to collect stories for a play about Canadian farm life. That enterprise resulted in something called The Farm Show, which toured Canada and seeded a television special and film.
In 1999 it inspired newspaper writer and actor Michael Healy to write his first full-length play. A fine idea which won Healy a drawer full of awards and made The Drawer Boy one of the most produced plays in America and Healy's native Canada. And so, as one production closed (at Stage Works in Kinderhook, N.Y.) another has opened not too far away. It is this production, helmed by Michael Dowling at the Miniature Theatre of Chester, that I saw on a recent afternoon.
One of the reasons this three-hander has traveled so well, and will undoubtedly continue to enjoy many other productions is that the characters bring out the best in whoever plays them and that it doesn't take a lot of bells and whistles to mount a solid production. The three actors Mr. Dowling has assembled bear this out.
Jay Patterson gives a beautiful portrayal of Angus, the farmer who, as a result of a World War II injury, can only remember things in the immediate present though he retains an idiot savant aptitude for figures. Patterson overdoes neither the bathos or the comic aspects of his frozen memory.
Anderson Matthews is equally forceful as Morgan, the childhood friend who is the brain injured man's caretaker and does most of the work on the hard scrabble farm that supports them. He is gruff and tough, and his methods for educating his young actor-apprentice about farm life are a blend of ironic wit and mean-spiritedness. His tactics for helping Angus deal with his disability reveal a sensitive man whose guilt, love and devotion have forged an unbreakable bond.
Kevin O'Donnell is amusingly ignorant about farm life. He convincingly conveys his burgeoning awareness of the emotional storm set off by his gung-ho to succeed farm adventure.
The actors are well supported by the simple but effective production values. The weathered wood platform set is dominated by a shabby farm house kitchen, edged with stalks of wheat to suggest the outside and to facilitate entrances and exits. The see-through side walls allow lighting designer Lara Dubin to provide a sprinkling of stars for Angus to count.
Constructed as a series of short scenes, The Drawer Boy's first act begins with Miles' arrival at the farm and focuses on establishing the characters and their relationships. The eccentricities of both farmers invite descriptions like "quirky" and "daftily touching" and will more than likely stir up the audience's own memories of dramas like Of Mice and Men and Rain Man. The farmers may also seem like something of a country mouse variation of Richard Greenberg's The Dazzle (my review). Such derivative elements notwithstanding, Healy turns the no fireworks, somewhat too quirky first act into a truly original and unlikely to be forgotten drama once Miles, having overheard and appropriated the story that Morgan retells to Angus each night, invites them to a rehearsal of the resulting play.
The dramatized story of the farmer boy (Morgan) and the drawer boy (Angus, then a talented, college-bound artist) who went to London as World War II volunteers, fell in love with two English girls who came to America to marry them unleashes a flood of frozen memories. It would spoil your experience to say more. Suffice it to say that the effect of the story told and the story eventually revealed deeply affects Angus and Morgan, not to mention Miles and the audience.
I don't get to Chester to see all of this gutsy little company's plays -- but I'm glad that something drew me to The Drawer Boy. Morgan and Angus and Miles are good company and well worth a visit to the Town Hall which is home to the Miniature Theatre of Chester.