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This review was prepared by Simon Saltzman for the March 9, 2005
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Paper Mill Review: ‘The Drawer Boy’
It would have been nice to report that the Paper Mill Playhouse
production of Canadian playwright Michael Healey’s "The Drawer Boy"
explains the answer in New Jersey why this play has earned the
distinction of being the mostly widely produced play at regional
theaters across the country.
Despite the generally enthusiastic advance reports and the play’s
apparent popularity, its wide appeal is a mystery to me. That doesn’t
mean that Healey’s play, inspired from events surrounding a 1972
Canadian play "The Farm Show," does not resonate with a modest earthy
flavor. If "The Farm Show" was created from the notes and observations
by actors and playwrights of Clinton Ontario farmers, "The Drawer Boy"
was created out of the desire of Healey (who is also an actor) to
bring a richer and more dramatic dynamic to the subject.
"The Drawer Boy"’s initial success began in 1999 at Toronto’s Theatre
Passe Muraille. It was given a host of Canadian awards, including
Outstanding New Play (Dora Awards); Governor General’s Literary Award
for Drama, and the Floyd S. Chalmers Canadian Play Award. "The Drawer
Boy" attracted considerable attention when it was produced for the
first time in the U.S. at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater in 2001 with
John Mahoney, who was responsible for bringing the play to the
attention of Steppenwolf director Frank Gallati.
A Tony and Theater World Award-winner for his Broadway debut in "The
House of Blue Leaves" and veteran of the hit TV series "Frasier,"
Mahoney is again playing Morgan, the same role he played at
Steppenwolf for this Paper Mill production, under the direction of
Anna D. Shapiro, also out of Steppenwolf. Paul Vincent O’Connor, as
Angus, and Louis Cancelmi, as Miles, complete the cast of this
sentimental yet laborious play about two old farmers subsisting on a
small isolated small Ontario farm and the young intrusive guest who
unwittingly changes their lives.
This is a character-driven play that derives its interest from the
apparent simplicity that defines the relationship of Morgan (John
Mahoney) and Angus (James Gammon), World War II veterans who have been
friends since childhood and are now companions in their 70. Do we
expect a little turbulence to stir up the simplicity? You bet. Are
there any surprises? Not really.
Shades of Steinbeck’s "Of Mice and Men," Morgan has been devotedly
looking after his buddy, the seriously dependent Angus, ever since an
accident to his head 30 years ago has rendered him memory challenged.
The change in their daily mundane and repetitious routine occurs when
Miles (Louis Cancelmi), a young actor who is gathering research for a
project about farm life for a local theater group, comes to live with
them for a spell. Amid Miles’ research, which will include learning to
drive a tractor (on first try into Morgan), milking cows, baling hay,
gathering eggs, rotating crops (something the bucolic movie version
will undoubtedly expand upon, but we mercifully don’t have to see), he
stirs up a heretofore comfortable, uncomplicated domestic situation,
as well as provoking a long-held secret to be revealed.
There are the obvious clues and indications from the outset in the
gentle but also volatile Angus’ behavior that, despite his ritualistic
doing of his chores, like baking and burning bread and making
sandwiches, suggest all is not right in his head. Angus’ condition,
the result of an injury sustained in 1941, provides a few
opportunities for laughter. A savant math whiz, Angus cannot, however,
remember whether jobs have been started or completed. He is, however,
consistently good at counting the stars at night.
Despite his scant knowledge of or interest in farm life and chores,
the urban Miles is committed to the daily tasks and particularly
listening hard to the oft-repeated after dinner story told by Morgan
to Angus every night under the stars. Never changing a word, Morgan
tells of the loss of their loves, two English women – "one tall, and
one taller" – who had accompanied them back to their farm after the
war with intentions of marriage, but were tragically killed in a car
accident. Morgan has maintained that their bodies are buried on the
"highest point in the county." Mahoney is excellent as the protective
Morgan whose patience is tried but never in question. To no one’s
surprise, the real story that Morgan is finally compelled to tell is
For Miles, who has carefully noted the conversations and observed the
two men who have managed to eke out a living, his everyday experiences
provide the substance for his play. However, after Miles takes Morgan
and Angus to a rehearsal of the play, it prompts the undoing and
unsettling of their world. Morgan feels betrayed, his privacy
Conversely, as a result of seeing Morgan and him portrayed on a stage
by Miles, Angus has a mental breakthrough, one that we are hard
pressed to find credible. He begins to have glimmerings of his past
and starts to demand from Morgan answers to his questions. O’Connor, a
longtime regional theater actor, who stepped into the role of Angus,
(replacing James Gammon) shortly before previews, is outstanding. He
gives a poignant account of a childlike hulk of a man whose basic
gentleness gives way to occasional fits.
Cancelmi evidently responds well to Shapiro’s guidance (she directed
him in "Until We Find Each Other" at Steppenwolf), as he affords Miles
a sensitivity that braces the character’s self-serving objectives. One
of his nicest moments comes as he tells Angus the plot of Hamlet in
Shapiro’s directorial hand is notable for its patience with the
plodding action and its restraint with a play that could use more than
one heavy downpour (an impressive rain curtain) to relieve the arid
redundant stretches. The title comes from Angus’ former ability to
draw, particularly an architectural drawing of side by side homes he
and Morgan had once planned to build, long buried beneath the floor
boards of the modest wooden farm house that designer Todd Rosenthal
has evoked with an eye for the rurally rustic.
– Simon Saltzman
Sunday, April 3. $31-$68; student rush $16. Wednesday at 8 p.m.;
Thursdays at 2 and 8 p.m.; Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 2:30 and 8
p.m.; and Sundays at 2 and 7:30 p.m. 973-376-4343.
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