Because they're private people with family secrets, many folks choose to play their life stories close to the vest. None of anybody's business, they say. Leave me alone.
But do we own the stories of our lives? Invoking the right to privacy ought to end somewhere around the point when people start trying to cover up the past, out of fear of the changes that a new perspective might bring. We know all about those paparazzi and we crave our solitude. But when we overemphasize the privilege of being left alone, isn't isolation the price we pay? Pretty soon we're sequestered from the guy next door, from the people across town, from everybody in the entire damn country.
Michael Healey's The Drawer Boy (first performed in Toronto in 1999 and now running in ARt's production through Jan. 30 at SFCC's Spartan Theater) is set at a remote farmhouse in Ontario in the early '70s. Two farmers have been scratching out an existence ever since World War II. Morgan (Reed McColm) runs the show. His brother Angus (Michael Weaver) is a little slow — actually, he suffered a serious brain injury 30 years ago, though he's still functional around the farm. Morgan limits what Angus can do and remember — and an isolated existence seems to serve the two brothers just fine. One of them, at least, just wants to be left alone.
And then an actor named Miles (Andy Greenfield) intrudes on their world, saying that he wants to write a play about their lives.
All of this happened, more or less: As a program note informs us, a Toronto theater troupe actually did fan out across rural Ontario in the early '70s in a collective attempt to write a play about farmers.
Yet apart from Miles' mutton-chop sideburns and puka shells — and the need to situate the action three decades after World War II — there's nothing really to pinpoint the action of The Drawer Boy in 1972. It's universal, really: While few of us suffer debilitating brain injuries, plenty of us repress the emotional residue from past decisions (or have them suppressed for us).
With strong performances from McColm and Weaver in particular, and with the insightful production values in Drawer Boy, ARt — still in its first year — has managed to deliver (along with Dirty Blonde back in the fall) two of the season's best shows. Both are three-actor psychological dramas that entertain us with enough laughs almost to conceal how our attitudes are being questioned.
Given McColm's and Weaver's past work in local theater and after reading Healey's script, I would have reversed their roles — until I saw the actors in performance. McColm conveys the controlling nature of a man who wants very much to let go of the things he controls. Weaver, for his part, responds with one of his finest performances in 17 years on Spokane stages. Playing a character who's out of touch, he convinces us how deeply Angus wants back into reality, however startling or disappointing that new perspective may be.
John Hofland's set provides a wall of hay bales and a plain farmhouse kitchen. It also cleverly evokes the blueprints that become important late in the show by leaving some aspects of the realistic set — a cement step over here, the garden over that-away — as outlines on a bare floor.
Dean Bourland's lighting scheme contributes starlight and a dappled dawn, suggesting both the beauty of life in the country and the long slogging hours of work needed to keep a farm going.
Director Tralen Doler allows Healey's blackouts to linger too long, and he undercuts the climactic scene with some unimaginative and static blocking. At the same time, he and McColm have agreed on simple and effective delivery for the play's two set-piece extended stories, both of them related by Morgan, fidgety on his front porch, yet controlled as he faces the onslaught of uncomfortable memories.
Weaver's Angus, meanwhile, lives in a present-tense eternity: Cramped by what's now and ignorant of what's past, he has no access to what he was or what he might yet become.
The Drawer Boy ends up turning its focus on how memory constitutes our sense of self, about how others sometimes control us by reshaping or suppressing our memories of ourselves, and about the power of storytelling and theater to unlock regret so that next time, far from simply failing, we will (as Samuel Beckett advised) fail better.
Ethically, we are all Angus, living in a gratifying present that's uncluttered by all those bothersome moral lessons we keep needing to learn and relearn. Theater holds up the mirror, and while we may not love the reflection, it's what we've got. If we want to change it, boys and girls, we can always go back to the drawing board. In a fine production, ARt's The Drawer Boy shows us how.
Publication date: 1/20/04