Scott Sneddon is Senior Editor on SesayArts Magazine where he is also a critic and contributor.
I came to Theatre Passe Muraille’s (TPM) new production of Michael Healey’s 1999 award-winning play The Drawer Boy knowing literally nothing about it. And watching it this way was a wonderful experience. The play is laugh-out-loud — no, loudly laugh-out-loud – funny. The audience really enjoyed the play. The night I saw it, they sent regular waves of deep, warm laughter, punctuated by quieter chuckles and guffaws, reverberating off the walls of the intimate playhouse. The acting is stellar: three strikingly different actors inhabit the play’s equally different three roles: Morgan the farmer, played by West-Indian Canadian actor Andrew Moodie; Angus his troubled friend, played by Ojibway actor Craig Lauzon; and Miles the visiting actor, played by queer white actor Graham Conway. And the relationships these three bring to life are at once sources of comedy, pathos and profundity. The staging is simple but inventive: the stage serves as Morgan and Angus’ farmhouse, and — thanks to creative exits and entrances, plus periodic sounds and dialogue emanating from behind the audience – the theatre itself becomes the larger farm property.
Before I say anything else, I want to be unambiguous: The Drawer Boy will be an entertaining, funny, sometimes melancholy but always satisfying night at the theatre for Sesaya families with children of approximately age 12 and up.
And in spite of (and also because of) all the humour, The Drawer Boy is, ultimately, a play about stories and storytelling. The play opens with Graham Conway’s Miles, a Toronto-based actor, arriving at the farm. He intends to work there for a few weeks, in order to gain insight, understanding and material for a new play about farming. Of course, Miles is woefully and comically unequipped for life on the farm, so Andrew Moodie’s taciturn Morgan begins spinning tall tales, starting with the performance anxiety of cows being milked. Morgan delivers outrageous statements and absurd demands with an opacity that challenges the audience to guess at his intent. Finally, Craig Lauzon’s Angus, who lives with Morgan, is an earnest but somehow damaged soul: well-meaning and good-humoured, he is the source of many of those audience belly laughs. But he is unable to recall names, conversations and events from even a few minutes prior. There is a troubling undercurrent to his illness, and unravelling the nature and source of it will be the ultimate subject of the plot.
Director Nina Lee Aquino’s casting adds potent new dimensions to the stories that are the play’s focus. The arrival of actor and would-be playwright Miles unleashes a torrent of storytelling. When Miles asks Angus for his personal story, the Indigenous Angus must admit he is unable to recall it. In fact, he is physically pained by the gaps in his memory. For Angus to remember his own story, he must turn to Morgan to tell – and then to re-tell – it. And when Morgan tells the long story of their lifelong friendship and how they come to be there on the farm together, this sweet story – for the moment – satisfies them all.
But stories are not told – or performed – just once. Instead, they are mutable and generative: with power to restore broken neural and cultural pathways – and even to create brand new ones. Thus, in some of the play’s funniest moments, Angus is enraptured when Miles recounts the story of Hamlet. Angus feels tremendous joy in the presence of a story – whether delivered by an actor on a stage, or a friend like Miles or Morgan in conversation. Broken though Angus may be, the externalization of stories – the act of articulating them so they can be examined, turned over, discussed and re-told, starts to restore parts of his memory, allowing him to grope after truth. Regardless of their truth or falsehood (or their origin in Elizabethan times or Angus’ own lost experience) stories prompt the stirring of insight, though this insight is partial and laboured, not pure and easy.
In The Drawer Boy, stories are altered and obfuscated – sometimes darkly, as when Morgan and Miles use facts and numbers to distract Angus from piecing together his real story — and sometimes comically, as when Miles returns the favour of Morgan’s tall tales at the very end of the play. And stories in The Drawer Boy are appropriated as they are re-told: Angus’ story by Morgan, then Morgan’s story by Miles, and finally Miles’ version by an entirely different and more truthful story.
And there are deeper Canadian layers of insight to be mined, thanks to Ms Aquino’s inspired and deliberately cross-cultural casting. Angus, who has forgotten his story, is Indigenous. Morgan, who tells his story circumspectly is Black. And Miles, who appropriates both stories, is white. And in their tales and interactions, we can see clearly that the dogged pursuit and sharing of stories matters. It yields insights and truths, and it can forge meaningful relationships.
And just in case that all sounds a bit too heavy . . . let me underline one more time that The Drawer Boy, playing until March 25, also yields a wonderful amount of delighted, surprised and loud laughter. If you’ve got some family time that is not yet spoken for (or if you struck out in your quest for Come From Away tickets), this is your opportunity to check out this different – but equally iconic– Canadian drama for your March Break family outing. It will provide you with lots to laugh about, lots to think about . . . and even more to discuss afterwards.
News You Can Use
What: The Drawer Boy by Michael Healey; Directed by Nina Lee Aquino; Assistant Direction by Cole Alvis; Featuring Graham Conway (Miles), Craig Lauzon (Angus) and Andrew Moodie (Morgan)
Who: Audiences 12 years of age (grade 7) and older
When: On stage until March 25, 2018
Where: Theatre Passe Muraille, 16 Ryerson Avenue, Toronto, ON M5T 2P3
Info and Tickets: PasseMuraille.ca and 416.504.7529
© 2018 Scott Sneddon, Sesaya