Corrections or additions?

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

quite different.

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

violated.

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

everyday vernacular.

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

Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn. Through

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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