The notes for Canadian playwright Michael Healey in the program of The Drawer Boy state that his play was “the fourth most-produced play in the United States during the first decade of the 21st century.” That may make the play sound like it’s straining foolishly for some kind of record, but its merits are so solid that the factoid doesn’t do it justice. The excellent production by the Oberon Theatre Ensemble demonstrates that Healey has written an affecting drama with plenty of surprises and dry as well as rollicking humor. Directed by Alexander Dinelaris, the story builds carefully as it follows a young actor who volunteers to work on a farm because his thespian consortium is putting together a drama about farmers. In the manner of the actors who interviewed and assembled The Laramie Project, he is supposed to live among farmers, collect data, and create a piece to contribute to their finished work.
The actor, Miles (Alex Fast), stumbles into the home of two bachelor farmers, Morgan (Brad Fryman) and Angus (William Laney). Though it’s not certain initially that they will permit his presence in their home (the first scene ends in a comic limbo), they do. Miles learns that Angus is mentally handicapped as a result of an incident in London in World War II, when he and Miles served together. Rather like the situation in the film Memento, Angus cannot remember anything for more than a few minutes at a time. He needs to be reintroduced each morning to Miles, and sometimes more often than that.
As Miles records the daily lives of the two men and tries his hand ineptly at milking cows and driving a tractor, he learns about the hard lives of those who provide food for the table: the cost to produce milk, beef and eggs and the slim profit that comes from them. Still, when Miles begins to spout communist rhetoric, the laconic Morgan halts him curtly. One of the virtues Healey’s play celebrates, and Fryman’s performance underlines, is the stoicism of farmers, and, by extension, the working class: Morgan, though beset with financial worries, is at ease with himself and the choices he has made.
But then Miles overhears Morgan tell Angus a story about two men who went off to war. It is a ritual tale about two friends, and one was a drawer of buildings—an architect. They met and married two British women and brought them back to the States. Unfortunately, Miles, desperate for inspiration for his theater project, decides he can use the material for a playlet, without Morgan’s permission.
Miles invites Morgan and Angus to the dress rehearsal, and the event, in a nifty tribute to the power of theater, transforms Angus. Morgan is furious at seeing his story made public and wants Miles to leave, but Angus suddenly knows who Miles is when he sees the young man. Moreover, Angus recognizes that the theater piece is the story of his and Morgan’s lives. Without revealing more, the story takes unexpected turns from there.
Dinelaris directs with skill and little flash, but it’s unnecessary anyway, because Healey has a strong story to tell and has furnished it with comedy, surprise and sadness. Rebecca Lord-Surratt has provided an evocative rural kitchen, with a grassy area outside; the only questionable element is a high wooden privacy fence that seems out of place on a farm where the owners would be more concerned to have a clear view of their property. The most interesting element is uncredited: the smell of baking bread during Morgan’s first-act monologue, a tour de force for Fryman. (Another in the second act is almost as arresting.) The baking bread is a smell that Angus cherishes and that rises into the audience to astonish the nostrils.
Though the play relies on a tried-and-true structure of “big secrets” that have to be revealed, some twists are unexpected. And there's warmth in the comedy. One scene has Miles telling his life story to Angus—except it’s the story of Hamlet, as if Miles were the Danish prince. “You yelled at your mother?” asks an incredulous Angus. (One of the few quibbles is that Angus doesn’t bother to ask what an “arras” is when Miles describes killing Polonius; still, the scene is delightful.) William Laney is powerful as the gentle Angus, who's akin to the gentle giant Lenny in Of Mice and Men, but Angus is given to outbursts of fury because of a metal plate in his head. His frenzy is usually calmed by Morgan’s giving him teaspoons of tap water. In such moments of kindness Healey underlines their affection.
The Drawer Boy is an impressive calling card for a playwright whose future work, one hopes, will be equally as good and better known.