If Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre’s new production of Michael Healey’s The Drawer Boy seems familiar, there’s good reason. One of its stars, Gary Farmer, was in Blue Bridge’s Of Mice and Men six years ago. In that show he appeared as the lumbering, endearing, mentally challenged Lennie. In The Drawer Boy, Farmer plays Angus, another lumbering, endearing, mentally challenged character. Brain-damaged by Second World War shrapnel, Angus is a (mostly) amiable fellow who now, sadly, is a ghostly shell of his former self.
There are numerous similarities between John Steinbeck’s tale and The Drawer Boy — an indebtedness that perhaps hobbles Healey’s play somewhat. That said, the Canadian playwright’s examination of the power of storytelling — and the effect it can have on real life — is compelling and, at times, moving. Particularly interesting is the notion that our personal stories are not in the public domain, that we somehow retain ownership over them.
The Drawer Boy is an obvious choice for Blue Bridge, a company specializing in revivals of classic theatre. First staged by Theatre Passe Muraille in 1999, this drama with comic elements is considered a landmark in Canadian theatre.
Set in the early 1970s, the play is about a naïve young actor from the city, Miles (Griffin Leonard Lea), who visits an Ontario farm to research a collaboratively written play about farmers. (Miles, interestingly, is loosely based on Miles Potter, the Belfry Theatre’s former artistic director, who acted in and helped research Theatre Passe Muraille’s 1972 The Farm Show.) In the play, Miles knocks on the door of a dairy farm run by lifelong pals Angus and Morgan (Michael Armstrong). The old bachelors agree to let him live on the farm for a couple of weeks to help out and observe. The resulting city-mouse-versus-country-mouse clash sparks laughs in Act I. However, the play doesn’t truly catch fire until the dramatic second act.
This production, directed by Jacob Richmond, has its strengths. On Thursday night, there were notably strong scenes in Act II with Farmer and Armstrong. To my mind, the Walt Wingfield-style humour of the first half seems a bit dated. Yes, there’s something amusing about Miles’ concern about the plight of the milked farm animals (“How does a cow feel about being interfered with twice a day?”). Yet some of this poke-in-the-ribs humour seems just a few steps removed from Green Acres.
On opening night, Lea, as Miles, embraced a slightly heightened acting style (think sitcom) that didn’t always jibe well with the more naturalistic styles of Farmer and Armstrong. It distanced us from the action — making it difficult to forget that we’re all in a theatre watching a play.
Happily, this dissipated in the second half as the play shrugs off its quest for laughs and upshifts into intense psychological drama. The Drawer Boy pivots around a story that Morgan tells Angus each day to calm him down — a tale of two young men who meet a pair of English women, marry them, and take them to live on a Canadian farm.
Miles weaves this story into a play that subsequently has a local public performance. Morgan is upset because his fiction — now paraded in front of the town — intentionally masks some troubling facts. Meanwhile, Miles’ relentless (and perhaps insensitive) mining for material triggers a recovery of lost memories for Angus. This, in turn, causes problems and further anguish.
The dramatic highlights of the night were provided by Farmer — who retold Morgan’s story in a touchingly fragmented manner — and Armstrong, who related the sad, true story of the bachelors’ marriages with understated plaintiveness. These scenes alone made The Drawer Boy worth watching.
Patricia Reilly’s skeletal set of a farmhouse (we see the bare framing) works nicely with the play. So do costumer Pauline Stynes’ 1970s outfits for Miles: jean cutoffs and socks, a vintage rock T-shirt, a hippie handbag. The Drawer Boy continues at the Roxy Theatre to July 15. For tickets see bluebridgetheatre.ca or phone 250 382-3370.
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With the current sunny weather, theatre lovers might want to consider attending the outdoor Greater Victoria Shakespeare Festival, which continues to Aug. 4.
The festival — at Camosun College’s Lansdowne campus and Esquimalt’s Saxe Point — features two plays: Pericles and The Tempest. Pericles is directed by Christopher Weddell, a founding member of Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach. Directing The Tempest is Chelsea Haberlin, a University of Victoria theatre graduate who is co-artistic director of Itsazoo Productions.
These shows, featuring mostly young actors, provide a good opportunity for experiencing Shakespeare while picnicking in relaxed surroundings.
Tickets are $21 to $26, with festival passes selling for $38 to $48 via ticketrocket.co (children 12 and under get in for free).