The phrase “hit Canadian play” is not an oxymoron, although it may sound like one. Michael Healy’s The Drawer Boy opened in Toronto in 1999 and then appeared in most of the leading regional theaters across the country. That acclaim was enough to bring it to Chicago in 2001, when Time magazine called it one of the year’s 10 best. Later, when a theater near Manhattan produced it in 2005, leading reviewers sneered. No matter. The same people dismissed John Cariani’s Almost, Maine, another offbeat comedy with a rural setting.
Meanwhile, The Drawer Boy has been winning friends left and right. It’s now one of the most-produced non-musicals in smaller American professional theaters, including the current show at Cortland Repertory Theatre. Part of the appeal is that rural Ontario bears a striking resemblance to upstate New York. Drop the “aboot the hoose” and you could be in Cortland County, not far from Cortland Rep’s Pavilion Theatre at Little York Lake.
Although the play might have opened in 1999, the action is set in August 1972 (we always see the calendar on the wall) to mark the occasion of cross-cultural adventure that could only occur in the late flower-power days. That summer idealistic Canadian universities sent their drama students to mix with “real people,” or at least those populations not usually seen in stage dramas. The students were supposed to mix in, get their hands working, observe, and then take what they found back to campus, every student being his own Studs Terkel. It worked. Students produced something called The Farm Show in Toronto, using the words and sentiments of people who had been interviewed. It was a great popular success.
What Healy does in The Drawer Boy is to revisit that summer in depth rather than breadth. It was one thing to have hard-working farmers see their lives illuminated on stage and quite another to examine how life has been changed after it has been transformed into art. The signal of where the playwright is going appears in that curious word in the title, “drawer.” This does not refer to office furniture, nor is it an obscure Canadianism the rest of us don’t know. Instead, it is a deflating country neologism for a boy who draws, a draw-er, without the implication that he might produce anything to be called “art.”
As the action begins, Miles (Dustin Charles), a self-obsessed university drama student, finds himself thrust between two bald bachelor farmers, the acerbic Morgan (Kyle Kennedy) and the gentle, not-quite-with-it Angus (Greg London). The men say they don’t mind having the boy around as long as he will pull some of the slack. Miles says he’s not afraid of “work” because he knows he’s up to it, having memorized reams of dialogue and stayed up for hours rehearsing performances. Utterly clueless of the men’s world-view, he blithely suggests they might be able to reduce their burdens by following the ideals of sharing pioneered by those great collective farms in the Soviet Union.
Much of the early action is decorated with Morgan’s deadpan put-ons of Miles. These include telling him his beef sandwich tastes like ham because they feed their pigs to the cows. Or sending him on fool’s errands like scrubbing the pebbles in gravel or moving the eggs under hens so they won’t suffer separation anxiety when the eggs are taken. Gradually, we realize that Miles is more than a comic foil. He keeps asking how the two men have found themselves thrown together, in a relationship in which Morgan resembles George in Of Mice and Men and Angus more than a bit like Lennie.
Angus, Morgan tells us, was wounded in World War II, which has turned him into a kind of idiot savant. His mind zips through calculations like a human computer, but he suffers the memory span of a goldfish. He can’t remember having made a sandwich by the time he eats it.
Miles and the rest of the students perform a rough draft of their findings for the local farmers, who for the most part are tickled to see their seemingly humdrum lives made into the stuff of theatrical magic. All except Morgan, who is mortified to see that Miles has dramatized his story of the two men in wartime Britain. Before the blow to his brain, Angus had been “the drawer boy,” a budding artist. He and Morgan had met and married two lovely English girls, “tall and taller,” and brought them back to Canada, where they were killed in a car crash.
We hear this story repeatedly, with barely a syllable changed. Several Manhattan reviewers disdained this repetition, to their shame. The repetition invites us to examine the comfort it gives the men as well as its shrinking veracity. Could it all have happened as Morgan says?
Although it is not mentioned in the CRT playbill, much of the original drama-students-on-the-farm project took place in Clinton, Ontario, toward the shores of Lake Huron, which not coincidentally is the hometown of Alice Munro. Long a favorite at The New Yorker magazine, Munro is one of the leading contemporary English-language short-story writers, who just happens to live in Canada. She has never found rural and small-time life to be bland. Read one of her volumes, like Open Secrets (1994), and she serves up some of the most unprepossessing people who quietly harbor plangent and florid emotions, and also how agreed-upon narratives shield the innocent from the deep pangs of regret.
In staging the only production most of his audience might not have heard of, producing artistic director Kerby Thompson plays three aces and one wild card. As Thompson notes in his curtain speech, director Bill Kincaid has received the most Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) nominations and awards of anyone from Cortland Repertory. This time Kincaid elicits crackling good humor from lines that don’t look like much on the page, and carefully guides the tone toward the poignant.
Similarly, Dustin Charles is a company favorite who always delivers the goods, although he may be a tad too old for a drama student. That bracing, self-confident naivete is a great springboard for comedy. Charles also serves as the dialect coach and is to be praised for honoring, make that honouring, subtle Canuck distinctions.
The lion’s share of the play’s laughs belong to Kyle Kennedy’s Morgan. Kennedy, a company favorite for four seasons, was also Jessup in the dynamite 2008 production of A Few Good Men.
Thompson’s big risk is the previously known Greg London in the most demanding role as Angus. He can crack a joke, as remarking it’s “Too bad,” when he hear that Miles is from Toronto. But London delivers a vulnerable pathos from the earliest scenes. His final speeches, unanticipated in the early comedy, pierce the heart.
After Cortland Repertory’s summer of Grease and Cats, a
three-person drama may look small. Yet Jonathan Wentz’s set design,
lighted by Eric Behnke, and Liz Meenan’s costumes, which are authentic
to time and place without being patronizing, testify to the company’s
high standards of professionalism.
This production runs through Saturday, Aug. 25. See Times Table for information.