Oink-Oink Here, Oink-Oink There
Watching Florida Stage's new production of The Drawer Boy is a bit like observing a bumblebee in flight. Based on the evidence, it shouldn't fly, but there it goes. Michael Healey's 1999 script is riddled with implausibilities and secondhand ideas. Still, it offers some gentle humor and soul, and audiences and critics have responded with multiple awards and productions across the U.S. and Canada. Ten or 15 years ago, this sort of quiet, personal tale might have turned up as a Hallmark Hall of Fame television movie of the week, before reality shows took over and many adult viewers stopped watching the tube altogether. Nowadays, such gentle, character-based stories have found refuge in regional theaters.
The Drawer Boy is set in 1972 on an isolated dairy farm in Ontario, where two aging bachelors, Morgan and Angus, live a stoic, routine life of hard work. Morgan keeps close watch over the dairy herd and also over Angus, who is "simple," the result of a World War II head injury when both were soldiers stationed in Britain. Angus is a cheerful soul, but he has little long-term memory left and zero short- term retention. Somehow, though, he has retained a genius for juggling numbers and manipulating accounts. He enjoys life in the now and doesn't let his lack of memory bother him in the slightest -- he's not even aware there's a problem. The bachelor farmers' quiet life is interrupted one day by the arrival of a young actor/writer from Toronto who offers to work on their place in exchange for research he needs for an upcoming play about rural life. Gruff Morgan grudgingly accepts the deal, but the city-bred Miles is pretty well useless around the farm, and his attempts at writing farm-inspired drama keep getting rejected by his theater group. Desperate for a story, Miles at last finds one when he overhears Morgan recounting to Angus (who can't remember) how they went to England during the war, how they wooed and wed two English girls, and what happened when they all returned to Canada. Miles lifts the story whole hog for his play, then invites the farmers to a rehearsal. Though Morgan is furious at Miles' appropriation, the experience jump-starts Angus' memory, and he begins to recover shreds of a long-buried secret.
This premise certainly shows promise for a dandy play, and Healey, in his first full-length drama, manages to maintain suspense for much of the story. Healey's writing has a quiet, dry wit and, at times, a poetic power. The essential idea comes from a real incident, when a theater collective in Ontario headed for farms to collect real-life stories for a play about rural life. Healey's play takes a more poignant personal focus, as the joys and heartaches of the two old farmers are slowly revealed. These characterizations are Healey's strongest suit, two juicy roles that are eminently actable.
In this, the Florida Stage cast fares quite well. Gordon McConnell gives a fine performance as the dour, laconic Morgan, a man of few words and many emotions, all kept in check by steady nerves and willpower. McConnell, who appears to have a knack for salt-of-the-Earth types (he was particularly fine as the grieving fire chief in Gablestage's 9/11 drama The Guys), gives Morgan a rolling, bear-like gait, as if the farmer has been battered by a multitude of barnyard accidents and a regimen of habitual routines, giving him the physical sense of a man stuck in a rut. Colin McPhillamy gives Angus a cheerful, loopy charm, while Terrell Hardcastle as Miles achieves a sweet-and-sour balance of naïve innocence and deplorable selfishness, no small feat. Director Louis Tyrrell once again delivers a carefully staged, clearly rendered production that's evocative and clear. Richard Crowell's set design, a wood-plank farm kitchen surrounded by a cornfield, sets the right tone of golden-hued rusticity, a feel that's abetted by Matt Brigand Kelly's inventive sound design, augmented by John Fahey's interstitial style of guitar music.
Overall, the high production quality papers over some of the play's weaknesses. Why Morgan allows Miles to stay on and on despite his relentless intrusions; why the long-buried secret must be so carefully hidden when Angus can't remember anything anyway; why, indeed, Morgan has stuck with Angus over the years are questions that pretty much get in the way of the narrative flow, and it's probably best not to ask them. The character of Miles is sketched flatly, in broad satiric strokes. Miles is naive, feckless, selfish, touting the benefits of Soviet-style collective farming while whining about the hard work he must do -- his idea of hard work is his performance for his theater group as a porcupine, a satiric take that feels cheap and easy. Angus, meanwhile, despite his pathos and charm, seems at moments like a construct, regaining his memory at all-too- convenient moments, to emphasize the point that the art of theater has power to reveal truth. (The play heavily references Hamlet, which uses theatricality for the same purpose.) This may be an old, often-used idea, but it still has some punch. It also has irony -- The Drawer Boy may be weak on internal logic and thematic inspiration, but its theatrical spell is still strong enough to beguile. While watching this bumblebee, perhaps it's best to enjoy the moment, as Angus does, and forget about the hows and whys.
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