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A CurtainUp Review

The Drawer Boy
By Simon Saltzman

I've done hard things, Angus. I was a hedgehog in a show last year about a group of dead animals. That show was three hours long. I didn't move. I've done hard things. And I wasn't about to quit, not with Morgan watching. I just picked them up one by one, hauled them over to the side of the barn, built a wall of hay. Look at my hands. Splinters inside of exploded blisters. ---Miles
Yup. That's something, alright. --- Angus

 John Mahone
John Mahoney in The Drawer Boy
It would have been nice to report that the Paper Mill Playhouse production of Canadian playwright Michael Healey’s The Drawer Boy provides the answer in New Jersey why this play has earned the distinction of being the mostly widely produced play at regional theaters across the country. Despite the generally enthusiastic advance reports and the play’s apparent popularity, its wide appeal is a mystery to me. That doesn’t mean that Healey’s play, inspired from events surrounding a 1972 Canadian play The Farm Show does not resonate with a modest earthy flavor. If The Farm Show was created from the notes and observations by actors and playwrights of Clinton Ontario farmers, The Drawer Boy was created out of Healey’s (who is also an actor), desire to bring a richer and more dramatic dynamic to the subject.

The Drawer Boy’s success began in 1999 at Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille. It was given a host of Canadian awards, including Outstanding New Play (Dora Awards); Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama and the Floyd S. Chalmers Canadian Play Award. It attracted considerable attention when it was produced for the first time in the US at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater in 2001 with John Mahoney, who was responsible for bringing the play to the attention of Steppenwolf director Frank Gallati.

A Tony and Theater World Award-winner for his Broadway debut in The House of Blue Leaves and veteran of hit TV series Frasier, Mahoney is again playing Morgan, the same role he played at Steppenwolf. The Papermill directior Anna D. Shapiro is also out of Steppenwolf. Paul Vincent O’Connor, as Angus, and Louis Cancelmi, as Miles, complete the cast of this sentimental yet laborious play about two old farmers subsisting on a small isolated small Ontario farm and the young intrusive guest who unwittingly changes their lives.

This character-driven play derives its interest from the apparent simplicity that defines the relationship of Morgan (John Mahoney and Angus (James Gammon), World War II veterans who have been friends since childhood and are now companions in their seventies. Do we expect a little turbulence to stir up the simplicity? You bet. Are there any surprises? Not really.

Shades of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Morgan has been devotedly looking after his buddy, the seriously dependent Angus ever since an accident to his head 30 years ago has rendered him memory challenged. The change in their daily mundane and repetitious routine occurs when Miles (Louis Cancelmi) a young actor, who is gathering research for a project about farm life for a local theater group, comes to live with them for a spell. Amid Miles’ research, that will include learning to drive a tractor (on first try into Morgan), milking cows, baling hay, gathering eggs, rotating crops (something the bucolic movie version will undoubtedly expand upon, but we mercifully don’t have to see), he stirs up a heretofore comfortable, uncomplicated domestic situation, as well as provoking a long-held secret to be revealed.

There are the obvious clues and indications from the outset in the gentle but also volatile Angus’ behavior that, despite his ritualistic doing of his chores (baking and burning bread and making sandwiches) suggest that all is not right in his head. Angus’ condition resulting from the long ago injury provides a few opportunities for laughter. A savant math whiz, Angus cannot, however, remember whether jobs have been started or completed. He is, however, good and consistent about at counting the stars at night.

Despite his scant knowledge of or interest in farm life and chores, the urban Miles is committed to the daily tasks and particularly listening hard to the oft-repeated after dinner story told by Morgan to Angus every night under the stars. Never changing a word, Morgan tells of the loss of their loves, two English women – "one tall, and one taller" – who had accompanied them back to their farm after the war with intentions of marriage, but were tragically killed in a car accident. Morgan has maintained that their bodies are buried on the "highest point in the county."

Mahoney is excellent as the protective Morgan whose patience is tried but never in question. To no one’s surprise, the real story that Morgan is finally compelled to tell is quite different. But far be it from me to disclose the truth that has to do with an act of domestic violence.

For Miles, who has carefully noted the conversations and observed the two men and the way they have managed to eke out a living, his everyday experiences provide the substance for his play. However, after Miles takes Morgan and Angus to a rehearsal of the farm play, their world is undone and unsettled. Morgan feels betrayed, his privacy violated. Conversely, as a result of seeing Morgan and himself portrayed on a stage by Miles, Angus has a mental breakthrough which we are hard pressed to find credible. He begins to have glimmerings of his past and starts to demand answers to his questions from Morgan. O’Connor, a longtime regional theatre actor, who stepped into the role of Angus, (replacing James Gammon) shortly before previews is outstanding. He gives a poignant account of a childlike hulk of a man whose basic gentleness gives way to occasional fits.

Cancelmi evidently responds well to Shapiro’s guidance (she directed him in Until We Find Each Other at Steppenwolf), as he affords Miles a sensitivity that braces the character’s somewhat self-serving objectives. One of his nicest moments comes as he enthusiastically tells the rapt Angus the plot of Hamlet in everyday vernacular.

The title comes from Angus’ former ability to draw, particularly an architectural drawing of side by side homes he and Morgan had once planned to build that's been long buried beneath the floor boards of the modest wooden farm house that designer Todd Rosenthal has evoked with an eye for the rurally rustic. Shapiro’s directorial hand is notable for its patience with the plodding action and its restraint with a play that could use more than one heavy downpour (an impressive rain curtain) to relieve the arid redundant stretches.

Editor's Note: Perhaps this play works best in small theaters that reflect the play's country setting. The Miniature Theater of Chester where I saw the Drawer Boy - a couple of summers ago is a case in point. Then again, this may just be a case of my worthy colleague responding differently to the play than I did. This just proves that all theater goers are their own best critics. To read the earlier review, go here.

By Michael Healey
Directed by Anna D. Shapiro
Cast: Louis Cancelmi, James Gammon, John Mahoney
Scenic Design: Todd Rosenthal
Costume Design: Jess Goldstein
Lighting Design: Kevin Adams
Casting Director: Alison Franck Original Music & Sound Design by Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen
Running Time: 1 hour 50 minutes (including intermission)
Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ, 973 – 376 – 4343
Wednesday February 23 through 4/03/05 to 4/03/05; opening 3/03/05
Tickets:re $31 - $68; Student rush tickets, $16.
Wednesday at 8 PM; Thursdays at 2 PM and 8 PM; Fridays at 8 PM; Saturdays at 2:30 PM and 8 PM; and Sundays at 2 PM and 7:30 PM. Reviewed by Simon Saltzman based on March 3rd performance
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