Characters in the Detroit Repertory Theatre’s production of The Drawer Boy make so many sandwiches you’ll lose count. Sandwiches are made, stolen, eaten, and provide a distracting obsession for a sweetly obedient and obviously brain-damaged farmer. That’s Angus, portrayed by veteran Rep actor Harold Hogan. A man-child, Angus hops around the farmhouse kitchen with hyperactive glee and studiously pays attention to all the small rituals that comprise his life, sandwich-making being the primary one.
There’s another farmer living in this house. A gruff, stout, no-nonsense kind of guy by the name of Morgan, portrayed with brilliant understatement by B.J. Love, who is making his Detroit Repertory debut. Morgan takes care of Angus, especially when Angus’ head implodes with the skull-splitting migraines he suffers when he becomes confused or when memories well up so forcefully into his consciousness that he can’t take it anymore. When this happens, Morgan takes charge, ordering Angus to his darkened bedroom until the storms in his head subside and he can get back to the important business of chores and, of course, making more sandwiches.
This is truly a fascinating and mysterious marriage, a story that raises a million questions. Enter Miles (Timothy McKernan), a naive and overly histrionic young actor who has come to the farm so he can do research for a play that he and a collective of other actors want to do about farmers and farming in Canada, an actual experiment that was carried out in the early ’70s. Canadian playwright Michael Healey, a former actor himself, uses this “experiment” to assemble these three men into a kitchen on a farmhouse in Ontario where stories are told, sandwiches are made, and a young actor gets in way over his head when he attempts to mine the two farmers’ heads for “inspiration.” What he uncovers will change each of them.
The story of The Drawer Boy starts off slowly, allowing the audience to warm up to each of the characters and their wildly disparate personalities. All of them are well-thought-out, especially the two middle-aged farmers, who reveal their symbiotic hold on each other through their deceptively simple and mundane interaction. Miles, the actor, is appropriately shallow, all idealism and cockiness. He does not heed the warnings to stay out of places he is not wanted, whether it is the cow-packed barn or the inside of Angus’ head, where all kinds of things seem to be swimming, or drowning, as becomes painfully apparent later in the play.
How such an innocent and well-intentioned “experiment” peels the layers of the proverbial onion away from this apparently well-oiled living arrangement is not without its share of lighter and downright hilarious moments. Eager beaver Miles wants to jump right into the farm’s operations, something Morgan has quite a bit of fun with. The play stretches Miles naïveté to ridiculous lengths, having him swallow Morgan’s “tutoring” with nary a protest. Morgan’s explanation for why certain cows produce more milk than others is only bested by his “definition” of “crop rotation.” To explain further would only ruin the joke. Morgan’s capacity for pranks and showing up the “city boy” seems bottomless, providing the play with a healthy dose of comic relief. These moments do not stand apart from the play, however. They are tightly woven into its structure, giving a realistic and three-dimensional weight to all of the characters. Who could resist turning the tables on a know-it-all like Miles?
The moment where the play turns from an interesting character study into full-blown psychological drama is when Miles overhears Morgan reciting a story to Angus at Angus’s prodding. (Yes, shades of Of Mice and Men become apparent at this point in the drama, but the searing light of The Drawer Boy’s fresh and original storytelling quickly dissipates them.) The story is about two boys growing up together, going to war together, meeting a couple of girls together (“one tall and the other taller”). Angus listens raptly as Morgan waxes on about plans of coming home after the war to build the house that one of the men, the “draw-er” boy, has drawn plans for. They’ll marry these fine English gals and move into that fine house on that fine piece of land that they’ll work together, forever. But something horrible happens. Drawer Boy gets hurt, the girls suffer their own terrible fate, and the two men are now on their own, taking care of each other.
Miles listens to all of this, moved by its inherent drama and its apparent explanation for Angus’s condition, and decides that this monologue will be his contribution to the “farm play” he’s been working on. From then on, the play’s clear-cut narrative gets murky, where memory and storytelling and lies play out and distort everything we think we know about the characters. The tension and suspense are ratcheted up, as Angus and Morgan sort out their past and the truth of their lives is made clear.
This is powerful, intimate theater and the Detroit Repertory Theatre’s intimate stage does it proud.
See The Drawer Boy at the Detroit Repertory Theatre (13103 Woodrow Wilson, Detroit), every Thursday-Sunday until May 23. Call 313-868-1347 for ticket information and show times.E-mail Dan DeMaggio at firstname.lastname@example.org.