Cream of the crop?

Popular, award-winning The Drawer Boy arrives at American Stage

What's most interesting about Michael Healey's The Drawer Boy, currently playing at American Stage, is the question, how did it win so many awards and achieve such fame? This not-very-deep, not-very-surprising paean to male friendship features at best a mere echo of themes treated first by Ibsen in The Wild Duck (1884), and, more scorchingly, by Edward Albee in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1962).

Still, the play has won several awards in Healey's native Canada ("Outstanding New Play," "Best English Drama" and, with a $25,000 honorarium, "Best New Play") and is one of the most-produced dramas in American regional theaters. Knowing this history, one can't help expecting something original and even revelatory — a fresh view of some human conundrum, a shattering exposé of some buried truth.

Instead one gets solid writing, likable characters, mildly amusing humor, and, at long last, the all-too-familiar confession in the Ibsen/Albee mode. Sure, the play is entertaining — especially with the fine acting of Joe Parra, Steven Clark Pachosa and Jonathan Fielding — but I'd heard all the hype and was prepared for much, much more.

The story the play tells is about Angus and Morgan, two farmers in rural Canada who have been friends since childhood. Morgan is the workhorse, while Angus is a damaged soul — wounded in World War II — who's subject to terrible headaches and who retains no memory of even the most recent events. Into their lives comes young Miles, an actor who's part of a collective composing a play about farmers.

Miles asks if he can move in with Angus and Morgan, observe them up close, and use what he learns as his contribution to the group drama. They accept — on the condition that he help out with the farm work — and Miles begins taking notes on the lives of his new acquaintances.

But he doesn't make much progress until he happens to overhear Morgan reminding hapless Angus of their war experiences, their romancing of two English nurses and their return to Canada to live with their brides. One day, Morgan reminds Angus, the women were killed in a horrific auto accident, and since then the two friends have lived together, cherishing the past.

Now Miles has a story dramatic enough for his purposes, and he's quick to offer it to his theater collective. But when Morgan and Angus come to a rehearsal, the retold chronicle makes Morgan livid: Miles, says the farmer, had no right to exploit their history. Other upsets follow, and Miles quickly becomes persona non grata in Morgan's eyes.

But as Miles loses Morgan's confidence, he enters into Angus'; and when the formerly clueless Angus begins to regain some of his memories, the pressure is on Morgan to resolve certain mysteries. What follows won't shock anyone who's familiar with dramatic literature, but it matters a great deal to Morgan and Angus, and brings this middlebrow play to a crowd-pleasing close. Leaving the theater, we have exactly nothing to ponder.

Well, nothing but good acting. The fact is, for all its unimportance, The Drawer Boy features three juicy roles for capable thespians, and in every case at American Stage, the performers meet the challenge. Best of all is Joe Parra as the wounded, childlike Angus. His Angus is a sweet invalid whose favorite activity is to make sandwiches for his friend Morgan, and who repeatedly forgets who Miles is and what he's doing there.

Parra brilliantly gives us all the sides of this "drawer boy" — one who used to draw pictures — from his frightening moments of mental breakdown to his innocent project of cataloguing stars. That fine actor Steven Clark Pachosa is also excellent as gruff, secretive Morgan, a man who enjoys playing practical jokes on urban Miles, and who never once complains about the burden of looking after Angus.

While Parra's Angus is lost in a cloud of forgetfulness, Pachosa's Morgan is all physicality, masculine energy and sense of the now. One can feel just how close Morgan comes to slugging uncooperative Miles, and one can sense just as clearly his inner decency and self-restraint. Finally, Jonathan Fielding is a sturdy Miles, one who's callow but not unfeeling, and whose stubbornness becomes crucial in the play's final scenes.

Fielding has a tough job, since Healey has written Miles — unconvincingly — as someone who doesn't know he's being kidded when Morgan orders him to polish gravel, or wake up early for "crop rotation." But the actor almost solves the problem by playing Miles as a true naïf, whose knowledge of farm work is nil, and who is willing to pay any price if it gets him closer to his two subjects.

The actors are aided in their portrayals by Brendan Hughes' sympathetic direction and by Sandra Goldmark's convincing set, a worn-looking kitchen with tired sink, obsolete refrigerator and discolored walls. Amy J. Cianci's costumes, are, as usual, top-notch — overalls for the farmers, short pants for city boy Miles — and Christopher Fleming's lighting figures importantly in signaling changes of scene and of mood. American Stage under Todd Olson usually provides a sharp production, and The Drawer Boy is no exception.

And still I return to the question: Why all the hoopla? A few possible answers: This is a three-character play, and financially strapped artistic directors all over the country are searching for same (or two-character or one). Another theory: the play is so inoffensive, so unchallenging to conventional opinion, it's sure to please any middle-of-the-road audience that's had enough of modernist iconoclasm.

Yet another explanation: Morgan's abuse of university student Miles allows the audience to enjoy its own latent anti-intellectualism (hey, the kid can't even milk a cow). And here's my last try: The message of The Drawer Boy is that beneath our tough exteriors, we're all as good-hearted as Morgan. As Angus. As Miles. And that's a message we're all willing to hear.

You figure it out. For some reason this play is the hottest thing on the North American continent.

Just why that is, is The Drawer Boy's greatest mystery.

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