Michael Healey’s play, The Drawer Boy, is in part inspired Theatre Passe Muraille’s landmark devised work, The Farm Show, a collective piece based on interviews with rural Ontarian farmers.
Healey met with some of these farmers several years later to discuss the impact their involvement in this influential theatrical work had on their lives. As well as addressing the transformative nature of art, the play also explores the power of personal fictions and the ways in which they can evolve over time.
When greenhorn actor Miles (Simon Lee Philips) arrives on Morgan’s (Neil McCaul) farm, he offers his labour in exchange for being able to observe the rugged farmer at work. Morgan’s soft side is shown by his matter-of-fact friendship with the brain-damaged amnesiac Angus (John Bett), who splits his time on the farm between making sandwiches and doing the accounts.
Philips’ lumbering gait and earnest expression only enhance Miles’ clumsy but well-meaning nature. At first he appears to be a comic creation, enthusiastically taking on the Sisyphean tasks set for him by Morgan, such as polishing gravel and swapping around hens’ eggs. In one sequence, he tries to channel the anguish of a cow desperate to be milked.
Eleanor Rhode’s production builds up a sense of narrative tension, with Morgan’s increasing evasiveness contrasting starkly with his gruff, no-nonsense manner. Along with Miles, we learn that Angus and Morgan have been close friends since their childhood; they went to war together, where Angus is ‘hit by a front door’. They each return home from England with a bride, but further tragedy ensues, an event which Morgan has embellished into a fairy tale suitable for Angus’ child-like nature.
Miles’ growing inquisitiveness and decision to use their story as the basis for a piece of performance tears a hole in the pair’s amiable co-existence. Angus’ memory improves, in part as a result of Miles performance of their story on stage. He eventually begins to question the ‘truth’ that Morgan has been telling him for decades, leading to a startling conclusion.
Healey’s play raises pertinent questions about the relationship between the fictions we consume and the fictions which provide our sense of self. Miles’ retelling of Morgan’s story on stage alerts Angus to its fabrication, but it also makes him question his own dependency on it. It is a revelatory moment when Morgan finally tells the ‘real’ story as himself, showing us how much of his own identity is formed by his protectiveness towards Angus. McCaul’s performance carries all the nuances of the writing: he is alternately comic, funny, gruff and menacing. It is testament to the direction and acting that all the characters are convincing.
Bett’s portrayal of the man-child Angus is very sympathetic. The audience is made very aware of the double loss he has suffered, the tragedy of his past and his ‘protection’ from the truth. The staging is brilliant, and manages to effectively transform the small stage into a domestic space, one that is alternatively consoling and claustrophobic. Rhode’s production delves into all the play’s many layers, drawing out the qualities that have made it a near-classic in its native Canada.