The Drawer Boy by Michael Healey. Directed by Jason Dolmetsch.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Jason Dolmetsch and Philip Kerr; photo: Pete Carrolan
Benjie White and Philip Kerr; photo: Pete Carrolan
"Cows produce as much milk as they can so they won’t be chosen."
The fourth most produced play in the United States during the first decade of the 21st century is Canadian playwright Michael Healey’s, "The Drawer Boy." In some ways, seeing its current production in Hubbard Hall’s tiny black box Freight Depot Theater, it is easy to see why that has happened. It is a two act, three actor play with a single set. It is a play about storytelling and character creation. It provides three roles that are so diverse and well-honed that each actor has multiple opportunities to shine. So you have economy, education, and impact. It also provides a good director with opportunities to experiment and that is always intriguing. For this play very little is written in stone.
The production in Cambridge, New York is fortunate to have three very talented actors on hand to take up the character challenges. In this case the actor with the most on-stage time and the hardest character to define is also the director of the play. Jason Dolmetsch plays Miles, a young actor from Toronto, who has come to a farm owned and managed by two older men in order to study them and learn from them about farming and their own lives so that he may create a character based on their experiences. He is the least likeable of the three men at the top of the play and he has the most growing to do. It is the role that requires the most intense scrutiny by a director for there are so many places in the script where he could easily fall off the stage and become a caricature. In this case Dolmetsch has had to be his own monitor.
His work as director with his compatriots shows him to be either the luckiest young director in the region or simply one of the most talented. Benjie White plays Morgan and Philip Kerr plays Angus. These two elderly bachelors share a life on a rural Ontario farm; friends from childhood they also suffered through the London Blitz during World War II with Angus suffering severe head trauma and brain damage as a result. Their life together, post war, has been one of deliberate purpose and clear story-telling, a story that may or may not be true but which keeps Angus motivated and Morgan content.
As Angus Philip Kerr is remarkably single-purposed. His acknowledgment of things that happen is uniquely strict; he rarely wavers in his tone and his style. He plays this part of Angus’ nature with a simplicity that tells us much about the damage he has suffered and its singularly simple outcome. He is at once endearing and off-putting. Kerr deals with the aspects of memory and what jars memories with directness and some courage for Angus could become boring if he isn’t compelling and in Kerr’s hands we cannot take our eyes off this farmer. As his world becomes stranger and he learns who he is at the hands of the young actor living with him Angus becomes the forceful title character and Kerr takes just the right amount of fervor and lets it emerge organically from within. It’s a brilliant performance.
Benjie White’s Morgan is a saner, simpler role except that in writing him Healey has given the man a country sense of humor. He tells outrageous stories about farming so that Miles, the actor, can be misled on everything and take in Morgan’s information as genuine. In White’s voice and body this aspect of Morgan comes across as logical and real and the humor in the play basically lies with him and his lies. Morgan also is responsible for the high emotional content of the play. Here White shines as he works to protect Angus’ delicate balance of sanity and his relationship to the reality of their lives. As Angus lives within himself, so Morgan is the harder, sun-baked skin of his friend, the protective coating that cannot be breached by outsiders. White takes out his character’s own frustrations with body language and vocal tones that are deceptively simple yet deeply complex.
As the catalyst in this old friendship, Dolmetsch’s Miles invades the memories and the day-to-day existence of the two farmers with a single-mindedness that is, as stated earlier, very deceptive. Based on a real person, Miles Potter who actually did what the play shows us, Miles is an easy target for Morgan and an easier friend for Angus. His triumph, during a presentation of the newly created "Farm Show" for his hosts, is the jogging of Angus’s memory to include himself in that brain’s memory banks. It is also his downfall and Dolmetsch’s presentation of the consequences of his actions is beautifully handled by the actor/director. He has found the changes in Miles and he presents them clearly. If this happened for the real Miles Potter it should have made him a household name in the theater, but his career has been primarily that of a director in Canada and I have never heard of him, so perhaps this is Healey’s take and the play’s brightest fiction.
The play, like its real source material, takes place in the 1970s. While its period is less relevant than its content, there is that feeling of an older place and time in the production which Benjie White has designed. The small company sometimes takes a while to move into the next scene, but the stage crew seems to be non-existent in this company so much needs to be forgiven here, especially in the seven scene first act.
Here we have an opportunity to meet three very talented actors in unique roles and we have an educational experience to boot for we learn about the roots of modern Canadian theater. There’s a very short window of opportunity here for this show only plays two weekends in the village of Cambridge, NY which is not even the easiest place to find. In Washington County, off of route 22, it is the place to be in January and "The Drawer Boy" is the play to see.
The Drawer Boy plays through January 20 at the Freight Depot Theater off Main Street in Cambridge, NY. For information and tickets call the box office at 518-677-2495 or go on line at www.hubbardhall.org.