Remembrance of plays past
The Drawer Boy is a play that has as much open space and silence in it as the place it depicts — an isolated farm near Clinton, Ontario. When a company of actors from Toronto descend on a rural Canadian community in the 1970s with the idea of creating a theater piece based on the stories they hear and the lives they observe, one of them, a young man named Miles, ends up boarding at a farm owned by Angus and Morgan, two men who have lived there and taken care of each other since World War II. The arrival of the actor at the farm causes an upheaval that unsettles a narrative framework constructed long ago — myths the farmers repeat over and over about what happened to them during and after the war.
The farmers are taciturn — to say the least — and The Drawer Boy delivers narrative value in silence as much as it does in its dialogue. Watching kitchen rituals performed silently by Angus, one begins to become aware that he might not be “all there.” He and Morgan served in England during the war, and to Morgan’s eternal regret, he sent his friend out during an air raid on an errand from which Angus never fully returned. The soldier suffered a head wound and lost his ability to remember almost anything.
Angus used to draw, thus the title of the play, and he retains a savant’s ability to do complicated math problems. Otherwise, he is unable to remember things he did, words he once knew, or people he just met. That Morgan, who runs the farm, seems perfectly willing to take care of his friend for the rest of his life seems somehow mysterious. There is no suggestion that the relationship has any romantic overtones.
The play hinges on Miles’ eavesdropping while Morgan recites the story of the two soldiers at war. Angus remembers, word by word, but he needs to hear the story daily — especially the part about the two tall British women who traveled back from Europe to join them on the farm, and how they died in a car accident and were buried on top of a hill nearby. When the actor “borrows” this tale for the developing theater piece and the two farmers are invited to come to a rehearsal, Morgan might be angry about having his story co-opted, but Angus is transformed. Something in his psyche wakes up. It is as if his memory has been jogged by another bomb blast. He suddenly has doubt and curiosity — a need for information that he has left unquestioned (or forgotten) for years.
What Michael Healey, the playwright, suggests, is that creativity not only has the power to explode the repressions that inhibit us but that the act of creating a play based on unremarkable people’s stories is or can be transformative for the subjects themselves. It’s an interesting idea upon which to hang a 90-minute play, and the lack of the work’s verbal dynamics and theatrical fireworks is to its credit. Quiet is the rule.
As the brain-damaged farmer, Angus, Jonathan Dixon does a superb job, underplaying the character’s mental disabilities. The director, David Olson, has allowed the script a lot of breathing room, and the moments when Dixon offers spoonfuls of fresh coffee to his friend, makes sandwiches, and simply looks out into space are often touching.