Members of our group knew we had seen a previous production of this play about eight years ago at the NAC, but most of us were pretty fuzzy on details. At intermission, I could hear people sitting behind us indicating the same thing: they had seen it before but could not remember much about the earlier production. I think that speaks volumes, particularly when you consider that I believe we will not have any problem remembering this one.
Todd Duckworth’s GCTC directorial debut demonstrates that he has placed a finely tuned hand on the wheel. So many of the elements of this production sang in harmony: three finely tuned and paced performances, lighting, sound, costumes all worked together to produce a nuanced tour de force.
The Drawer Boy is a touching story about loss and love, told with humour yet dealing with serious issues such as the very topical one of caregiving. It takes as its premise the work Canadian actors did developing Paul Thompson’s The Farm Show in 1972, when they went into the farming community near Clinton, Ontario. The idea was that they would live with the farmers, get to know them, their lives and stories, and then write a collaborative play based on what they found¹. In his speculation, Canadian actor and playwright Michael Healey (who is not profiled in GCTC’s printed program), presents us with a young actor, Miles, who arrives at a farm where the mentally challenged Angus and his long-time caregiver, Morgan, live and work their farm. The play is not just about farm life in general; in fact, the only insight we get about farm life comes indirectly each time Morgan sets a bizarre task for the farm rookie Miles to fill his day. Hand-cleaning individual pebbles with a bucket of water and a toothbrush then drying each one with a cloth comes to mind. These humorous tasks comprise much of the action of the first act. But in the first act we also become aware of Angus’ memory problems. As Morgan describes it: “All he knows is now.” A striking incident occurs near the end of the first act, when Morgan once again (it turns out) tells Angus the story of the two boys who were friends and the two girls, one tall and the other taller. The story becomes a fascination in the second act, as Miles gets involved in it. Not to spoil this, suffice it to say that the important element of all this is not what the outcome of the story is, but how the cast and crew and designers handled it.
Upon entering the theatre I could not help but be struck by Robin Fisher’s asymmetrical design: we have a cutaway farmhouse stage left with the farmyard occupying the rest of the stage. It is simple, functional and predominantly pale ochre, as are Morgan’s and Angus’ costumes; visually, they are part of the building. Into that comfortable domesticity erupts Miles, who has a different colour scheme and a different mind-set. He wears rainbow suspenders and his excited voice and movement are entirely different from the modulated timbre and measured cadences of Morgan and Angus. One element of the set bothered me: the horizon lines were too definite for the situation and the pitch of the play.
Sound was effectivley handled more like foley for a cinematic effect; we had crickets and cicadas occasionally helping to slow things down and immerse the characters, particularly Morgan and Angus, who were actually trapped in the place.
Martin Conboy’s lighting was effectively subtle and mood enhancing. I particularly liked his broken exterior shadows and the focal sunlight in the kitchen and the stars in the night sky.
The opening scene in which Paul Rainville (Angus) and Frank Moore (Morgan) establish the characters, using hardly any dialogue, is both intriguing and funny. There is a fine line to tread here between farce and pathos, as we discover that Angus is strange—kind of out of it—and Morgan glides around him, seemingly taking advantage. It would be very easy for the audience to get the impression that Morgan is cruel and Angus is a surreal clown; just a twitch either way would do it. (Perhaps that is what happened in the aforementioned forgotten production.) But Rainville and Moore negotiate this tricky terrain subtly and give us the ambiguity of a real relationship that is founded in love, trust, guilt, despair, loss—as they say in Facebook, it’s complicated.
The central conflict in the play is ostensibly between Morgan the rational caregiver and Miles the visiting actor: Miles digs and Morgan obscures. Miles, saddled with the idealism of youth, and Morgan, hemmed in by the conservatism of age and habit, seem to be headed for a confrontation of significant values over Morgan’s treatment of Angus; of course, as we discover, there is more to the Morgan/Angus story than first meets the eye. Morgan’s obstinacy is not selfishly motivated, and it is here that both the playwright and Frank Moore combine to intrigue and evoke the emotion that the situation presents.
I really like this play and the GCTC’s production of it. I was a little mystified by the little twist of the full milk container at the end, because there was really no foreshadowing or planting to set up Miles’ abilities. But aside from that and the heavy-handed horizon, the play was atmospheric and affecting, the characters were delivered with grace and controlled emotion. All in all, a very classy production of a tricky and subtle script.
GCTC presents The Drawer Boy by Michael Healey
¹Coincidentally, forty years ago, before The Farm Show project began, my co-authors and I visited Stratford and had dinner with Anne Anglin and Paul Thompson, who were very articulate and stimulating on the subject of what theatre could be.
We were preparing a reference book [Theatre Arts and Communication Arts (Ontario Secondary Education Commission of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, 1969) — C. D. Jolliffe, Douglas Hill, Charles J. Lundy, William D. Manson] for Ontario secondary school teachers. This was just at the beginning of the new drama thrust in Ontario schools, one which various governments have threatened to truncate, just as they have short-sightedly threatened other cultural subjects in the interests of focusing on “the basics”.