Stage Door Review

The Drawer Boy

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

✭✭✭✭

by Michael Healey, directed by Gil Garratt

Blyth Festival, Harvest Stage, Blyth

June 22-July 16, 2022

“Each be other’s comfort kind” (from “At the Wedding March” by Gerard Manly Hopkins)

The Blyth Festival is currently presenting the best production of The Drawer Boy (1999) since the Toronto revival in 2001. Director Gil Garratt has chosen an ideal cast and has staged the play on Blyth’s outdoor Harvest Stage in a way that feels perfectly suited for a play set in the midst of farmland. I never thought anyone could match the humour, sensitivity and emotion of the original production, but Garratt and his cast have done so and have thus demonstrated why the play is one of the undisputed classics of Canadian drama.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the story, I’ll quote my plot summary from 2001: “Taking as its background the collective creation of The Farm Show by Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto in 1972, the play follows Miles [Potter], a Toronto actor,  who is billeted with two bachelor farmers in Southern Ontario to gather information for a play about farming. Morgan, the dominant one, takes care of Angus, his childhood friend who suffered a head injury when they both were in England during World War II. Miles overhears a story Morgan tells Angus about their life and uses it in the play”. When Morgan and Angus attend a rehearsal and hear Miles tell Morgan’s story on stage, Morgan is as incensed as Angus is delighted. Hearing the tale from the stage awakens memories in Angus that Morgan hoped Agnus would never remember.

Besides, of course, having a different cast, the Blyth production is different from the Mirvish production in three major ways. First, the Blyth production is outdoors rather than in the whimsical but fake greenery of the Winter Garden Theatre. The outdoor setting links the story more closely to the place where the action takes place and allows such surprises as Miles driving an actual Cockshutt Model 20 tractor as part of the action.

Second, Steve Lucas has designed a set that plays with the notions of the clear and the translucent in ways that underscore the play’s meaning. The Harvest Stage is a square oriented as a diamond with one point aimed at the middle of the arc of tiered seating that curves around the front of the diamond. The back two sides are two storeys tall. On the Harvest Stage Lucas has suggested the house of Morgan and Angus with walls of scrim painted as brick leading to outside doors left and right. Inside the kitchen of the home are left open to view. On stage left we can see through scrim to a staircase leading from the kitchen to Angus’s bedroom on the upper floor.

Once the sun sets, Lucas can make the walls of scrim more or less opaque depending on whether they are lit from the front or the back. John Ferguson’s set for the 2001 production let us see through the house to a landscape behind it. Lucas’s set, however, emphasizes various planes of vision and thus planes of consciousness that reflect Angus’s mental state where the past is sometimes remembered directed or sometimes remembered only via the story he has heard. It’s a brilliant concept.

Third, Gil Garratt has added live music to the production. Before the play begins we are greeted with music by Anne Lederman on the fiddle and Graham Hargrove on a variety of percussion instruments — bones, washboard, washtub and various farm implements including a shovel and a tractor seat. This is lively and humorous, but it also reinforces the play’s idea that ordinary farm life can be transformed into art. Garratt has the duo add music primarily between scenes but he also knows when music will enhance a scene and when it will not. Lederman and Hargrove add music that subtly underscores the action in the form of Leitmotifs. Hargrove bows a single bar of a vibraphone making an eerie sound every time Angus begins to have a headache from a twinge of memory. They two quietly play a Scottish tune every time the romance of Agnus and Morgan with the two tall English girls is mentioned. But in a scene like the emotional conclusion, however, Garratt has them remain silent.

When I saw the original cast of David Fox as Angus, Jerry Franken as Morgan and Tom Barnett as Miles, I was certain their performances could not be bettered. Indeed, their performances remain in a class of their own. Yet, the present cast of Randy Hughson as Angus, Jonathan Goad as Morgan and Cameron Laurie as Miles completely make their roles their own. In general, the present cast creates a greater impression of the suppressed emotion of all three characters.

Goad presents Morgan as brusque and preoccupied from the very start. In retrospect we see that constantly caring for Angus has taken its toll, made him more irritable and made him more aware that he is more irritable. The arrival of a newcomer like Miles is at once a distraction and an annoyance. Morgan is quite happy to see how outrageous his lies can be or how foolish the task can be that he assigns Miles before the young city slicker catches on. At the same time the minute Miles strays from investigating farm life to investigating Morgan and Angus’s life, Morgan is ready to pounce on Miles.

Perhaps, Goad’s best scene in his telling the tale of their lives to Angus that Angus so loves to hear. At least for the moments he hears it it gives Angus a knowledge of the past that he can’t otherwise recall. Goad tells the story with a gentleness and a beautiful sense of phrasing and emphasis. Making this story so beautiful is central to the play because we need to know how important this story is to both men and how threatened both will feel if any element in it is altered.

Randy Hughson gives one of his best ever performances as Angus. His comic timing is, as usual, perfect and his use of pauses brilliant. Nevertheless, we may laugh at his quirks and habits until it sinks in that how much he has been changed from the brain injury he suffered during the war. Once the truth of his condition sinks in, any humour Angus’s behaviour arouses is tinged with and ultimately overcome by compassion.

We see Angus’s clouded brilliance in his facility with numbers, but Hughson also shows us his sensitivity in his reading of the poem “At the Wedding March” (1879) by Gerard Manly Hopkins, a poem Angus thinks he read when he and Morgan married their English sweethearts. Hughson always lingers on the lines “Each be other’s comfort kind: / Deep, deeper than divined”, lines that draw a parallel to the relationships of kindness between Morgan and Angus and Angus and Miles. Hughson gives what is the most intense portrayal of a mind at war with itself that I have seen on stage.

Cameron Laurie is hilarious as an innocent young man all too aware of his ignorance. The period-perfect 1970s wardrobe designer Jennifer Triemstra-Johnston has given him only emphasizes his outsider status. Laurie shows Miles’s growing fear of Morgan and sympathy with Angus and how the conflict of these feelings only makes his stay with the two more awkward. Laurie shows that while Miles may be poor at gathering practical information, or perceiving Morgan’s leg-pulling and practical jokes, he excels in understanding people. He shows that despite his outsider status, how Miles takes on uncovering the truth of the two farmers’ past as a positive goal even though his idealism blinds him to the consequences of his actions.

The Drawer Boy is an intricate elaboration of the theme of fiction and reality and of the usefulness and the destructiveness of both. It is also a celebration of the importance of art in reflecting group’s shared history. Focussing on the individual example of Angus, seeing his story on stage so takes him out of himself that it precipitates a flood of memories he thought he had lost.

Garratt’s production of The Drawer Boy produces a parallel act of anamnesis helping us recall to mind the greatness of Healey’s play. Given Lucas’s set Garratt can make us see characters who are in plain sight as well as those “hidden” by scrim. His extraordinarily detailed direction frequently shows us the reactions of the hidden characters to what the visible characters say or do, creating a level of richness beyond that in the original production.

Garratt’s directorial decisions are so right that it is now hard to imagine the play staged more successfully than Garratt has done it. A month-long run does not seem long enough for so thoughtful and moving a production. I hope that Blyth considers reviving this Drawer Boy since a production of so high a calibre deserves the greatest possible audience.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Jonathan Goad as Morgan, Randy Hughson as Angus and Cameron Laurie as Miles; the set of The Drawer Boy by Steve Lucas on the Harvest Stage with Randy Hughson as Angus and Cameron Laurie as Miles; Randy Hughson as Angus and Cameron Laurie as Miles. © 2022 Terry Manzo.


For tickets visit blythfestival.com.