Canadian play talks memory, storytelling, and voice, now on stage in Toronto
Michael Healey’s The Drawer Boy, currently running at Theatre Passe Muraille, is one of the most produced Canadian plays of all time. It features a familiar societal conflict: urban versus rural, actor versus tractor. Somehow, in all my theatre education, I had missed seeing this play thus far, and was excited to hear that Passe Muraille was bringing it back in honour of its 50th season.
What makes The Drawer Boy so enduringly popular with theatregoers, I think, is its exploration of the power of story and theatre; in particular, how story is so inextricably linked with memory and identity. When we change the stories we tell to and about ourselves, we can’t help but change who we are.
Inspired by The Farm Show, a devised 1972 work about the lives of farmers (and set in the same year), the play features a young actor from Toronto, Miles (Graham Conway), who asks two farmers for a trade: work in exchange for room, board, and their stories.
Morgan and Angus live together, and have been friends since before their Second World War tour. Steadfast Morgan (Andrew Moodie) runs the show, while Angus (Craig Lauzon) tends to the cooking and finances. Though Angus has a sharp head for numbers, it’s clear there’s something wrong in its memory and processing, and Morgan shoulders most of the burden of care.
The show starts off with the expected laughter at the naive urbanite’s expense, in lines designed to make a self-aware urban audience feel a little less voyeuristic because they’re poking fun at themselves. From there, though, the show quickly turns into something with emotional and thematic depth when the story Miles wants to tell isn’t necessarily the story his subjects want heard. Through layers of telling and retelling, the real and unreal, fissures are created in a formerly rock-solid narrative.
As appropriation of stories is currently a hot topic, director Nina Lee Aquino ups the ante by casting black and Ojibway actors as the two farmers, with a white actor playing the artist. This is presented without comment; it’s just food for thought about who has a right to tell whose story.
The play also has interesting and relevant things to say about the backbreaking labour of farm life and the exceedingly small monetary reward; it’s a job few want to do but no-one can live without. Tying the actor, the farmers, and their animals together is a desperate need to produce salable material or become obsolete.
Moodie has perhaps the least-showy part of the three, but his caregiver-farmer is the rock of the show. He gets a lot of mileage out of quiet, measured speeches and short, deliberately taciturn responses, with the occasional outburst as things spiral out of his tightly-reined control. He obviously delights in messing with the bumbling, naive urban-dweller, and suffers no fools, but at the same time is surprisingly gentle. When things do come to a head, by upping the intensity instead of the volume, he kept my undivided attention.
The other two actors are also excellent. Conway has to walk a difficult line to keep from being just the butt of jokes, though he occasionally lives up to that role with, for example, an angsty cow monologue. The script doesn’t paint him as a villain, just as a fish out of water: he wants to help, but is nonetheless a destructive force. Lauzon will break your heart by showing the resulting emotional difficulties of living a constant, extreme version of walking into a room and suddenly having no idea why.
I loved the design of the large, open kitchen with walls reminiscent of sketches, as well as the levels of the farmhouse’s background spaces. Entrances and exits from everywhere in the house put us close to the action. Sound design is mostly transitional; a melancholy pastoral electric guitar evokes the country without being cheesy, instead feeling simple, clean, and modern.
Watching The Drawer Boy, I was reminded of a line from the famous documentary play The Laramie Project, which also tried to give voice to those not usually heard on stage: “I trust you people that if you write a play of this, that you say it right, say it correct.” How we tell our stories is more than entertainment; it’s who we are, and who we strive to be. That The Drawer Boy has become a part of the Canadian theatre story seems only fitting.
- The Drawer Boy plays at the Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace (16 Ryerson Avenue) until March 25, 2018.
- Shows run Tuesday-Saturday at 7:30pm, with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:00pm
- Tickets are $17-38 and can be purchased online, in person, or by calling the Arts Box Office at (416) 504-7529
- There are a number of special performances:
- Relaxed Performance: Saturday March 10, 2018 at 2pm
Audio Described Performance: Saturday March 17, 2018 at 2:00pm
ASL Performances: Sunday March 18, 2018 at 2:00pm & Thursday March 22, 2018 at 7:30pm
Photo of Craig Lauzon, Andrew Moodie, and Graham Conway by Michael Cooper