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In Thinking Cap Theatre's The Drawer Boy, Scott Douglas Wilson is the picture of a citified dork in the early 1970s. He plays Miles, a playwright in a Canadian theater company who has descended upon a rural farmhouse to study its residents' lives for a play about farming. To the farmers, he may as well be an extraterrestrial, with his '70s sideburns, ugly T-shirt, jean shorts cut off well before the knee, socks up to here, and bright-blue sneakers too gauche for infants.
Clad more appropriately in weathered overalls and stained boots, Jim Gibbons and Mark Kroczysnki play Morgan and Angus, the proprietors of the farm. Morgan humors the city boy's questions, but he also makes him rotate crops at 3 in the morning and spoon corn kernels out of cow shit to earn his keep. For a while, The Drawer Boy seems to be another riff on urban/rural culture clash, with an opening that recalls Coen Brothers quirk — until the story of Angus takes over both Miles' attention and the focus of The Drawer Boy's playwright, Michael Healy.
Angus is a slow-witted, good-hearted farm boy with no short-term memory but a savant's ability to calculate vast mathematical equations in seconds. He dotes on Morgan like a servant, and Morgan proceeds to coddle him like a child. Angus' mental breakdowns, accompanied by the imagined smell of baking bread, are frequent and date back to the metal plate inserted in his head after an incident in the Second World War. But he can be soothed by an oft-repeated story from Morgan that we soon realize is about the two men, their lifelong friendship, their wartime experience, and the two English girls they loved and lost in a car accident. When Miles eavesdrops on the story and decides to use it in his play, the synapses in Angus' brain begin to connect for the first time in years, altering his relationship with Morgan and the world around him, for better or worse.
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The Drawer Boy premiered in 1999, and by 2004, it was the most-produced play in North America. Accessible as it is profound, it's justifiably regarded as a modern classic, addressing such issues as the moral hazards of artistic interpretation, the thwarted dreams and psychological damage of warfare, and the dilemma of acknowledging harsh realities versus repressing them in convenient fantasies. It's a play that suggests that only by dealing with trauma can healing eventually occur; people spend a lot of time and money on therapists to reach the result Healey achieves over this two-hour play.
For a company whose niche lies in edgy, button-pushing plays for the gender-bending youth, The Drawer Boy is proof that Thinking Cap Theatre can do straightforward, mainstream theater with the best of them. The aforementioned costumes, selected by director Nicole Stodard, are spot-on, if overused — people don't usually wear the exact same clothes day in and day out, ad infinitum — and Chastity Collins' set design is a notch above nearly every production I've ever seen at Empire Stage.
For perhaps the first time, there is an elevated stage — a rustic farmhouse kitchen — framed on the left by hay-filled chicken coops with ratty wiring and on the right by a creaky picket-fence entryway. The wooden planks on the floor and staircase creak with wear and tear. Bravo to the eight separated cupboards of various shapes and sizes, elegantly and deliberately arranged on the kitchen wall like the pictures in a multiphoto frame; each contains a black-and-white photo of Angus' past, which he uses to jog his memory. Kudos too to Nate Sykes' lighting design, with its creative positioning of stars on the ceiling of the set during the night scenes.
And director Stodard could not have chosen a better cast to act out this deep-rooted exorcism of truth. Gibbons and Wilson perfectly embody their clashing personalities, with the prior an obstinate, grizzled personification of heartland values and the latter a sensitive interloper who wouldn't know a tractor from a hoe.
But as Angus, this is Kroczynski's show, and for an actor seldom seen in professional South Florida productions, his performance is a revelation. Rarely stable, his head bounces around on his neck like a bobble-head or a paranoid squirrel, and he gazes across his environment with the helpless, wide eyes of a baby surveying the inscrutable, tormented by something only he can see. His face turns a scalding red as he clutches his temples in agony, retrieving such intense hurt from God knows where. You can almost see the metal plate chafing against his cerebrum. It's a performance that engenders pity, discomfort, and ultimately hope — the staggering center of an enormously powerful show.