Edmonton Journal

In Healey's The Drawer Boy, Shadow delivers a play of depth, layers, emotions

1999 work looks quite simple at first, but broadens in complexity as it unfolds


As an actor looking to tell the stories of authentic rural working-class folk in Canada, Miles has just hit the jackpot.

He's knocked on the door of the farmhouse belonging to Morgan and Angus, two very old bachelor friends with crops, cows and chickens to tend. Angus suffers from a Second World War head injury and can only function in the simplest of ways, but Morgan is exactly what he's looking for: crusty, stoic and hard-working. By observing both at their tasks, Miles hopes to bring back vignettes to his theatre group that will accurately portray their lives.

Seems simple, no? Except that as Miles (Paul-Ford Manguelle) discovers through a certain amount of eavesdropp­ing and sleuthing, the story of Morgan and Angus is a little more complicate­d than it appears on the surface. Angus (Reed McColm) can't remember Miles' name from moment to moment, and he's prone to leaving the bread in the oven, but he's also revealed to be quite gifted in other respects. Morgan (Glenn Nelson), who barely tolerates Miles' presence and is given to dryly mocking his clear incompeten­ce at farm labour, doesn't want to talk about what's wrong with Angus.

There's a narrative that's been invented, but closer inspection sees it all fall apart. It all comes to light by the midway point of Michael Healey's 1999 play, The Drawer Boy. Or, does it?

Set in 1972, what seems like a fairly convention­al and melodramat­ic story doesn't so much twist as broaden, breaking past any guesses you may be entertaini­ng as the two old farmers' lives are revealed in full. In the process, you'll be thinking about art, human lives, memory, loss and love.

There are many layers to all of this. Healey based his play on a 1972 production in which theatre students actually lived with farmers in Clinton, Ont., eventually creating a milestone play called The Farm Show. The Drawer Boy reflects that time and place with a great deal of humour, presenting Miles as naively ideologica­l and garnering a number of laughs from his bumbling attempts to help.

He may be inept around the cows, whose lives he also hilariousl­y wants to reflect in his performanc­e, but Miles is also genuinely caring. The role presents a bit of a tightrope for Manguelle to walk but he does so deftly, moving so easily from comic foil to empathetic participan­t you might not even notice. Nelson and McColm's nuanced performanc­es as longtime friends also push back against stereotype­s; watching the unravellin­g of what appears to be simple comedic caricature­s is a real pleasure.

The acting alone is worth the price of admission, but the wonderfull­y designed farmhouse set should be highlighte­d as well. That and the sound design of cows and chickens in the distance and crickets chirping at night not only draws you into the setting but keeps you there as well. All in all it's a remarkable production that should be kept in mind when the next round of Sterling nomination­s come around.

 ?? MARC J. CHALIFOUX ?? Shadow Theatre's production of Michael Healey's The Drawer Boy runs at the Varscona through Feb. 4.
MARC J. CHALIFOUX Shadow Theatre's production of Michael Healey's The Drawer Boy runs at the Varscona through Feb. 4.

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