An Ontario farmhouse in 1972. Enter Miles, a young, enthusiastic actor from Toronto involved in a collective production about farm life. Then, two poker-faced farmers with whom Miles stays for dramatic insight. Although urban audiences might expect to yawn through a tale of two farmers, Michael Healey’s riveting play, The Drawer Boy (Playwrights Canada Press, 66 pages, $13.95 paper, ISBN: 0887545688), commands wide-eyed attention.
Referred to as “simple”, Angus lacks short- and long-term memory, only recognizing Morgan, the other farmer with whom he lives. The play moves in a tantalizing striptease, gradually revealing the dark history around the accident that deprived Angus of his memory. Morgan tells Angus a bleak story of their shared past. Miles overhears the story and performs Morgan’s telling in his play. When Angus sees Miles’ performance, his memory begins to return. As the story passes from one performer to another (Miles acting Morgan, Angus acting Miles acting Morgan), the layers of performance create an enthralling nest of Chinese boxes, especially once we begin to question the truth of Morgan’s story... and suspect that an even darker one lies behind it.
Healey strikes a remarkable balance between the sorrow of the farmers’ past and the comedy of their present; the charm of his humour is that it avoids the obvious. Satiric barbs attack the naďvité of city-slickers, not of country bumpkins. Morgan reveals an otherwise invisible wit in the face of gullibility when he lectures Miles on the secret lives of cows or orders him to perform a literal “rotating” of the crops in one night.
The Drawer Boy premiered at Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille last year; four Dora awards and many accolades later, it has returned for their 1999/2000 season. Perhaps its popularity is due partly to its unique voice in a market saturated with musings on the relationship of storytelling to memory. Art in The Drawer Boy is a curious trickster, manipulating memory in the most contradictory of ways. Stories are told to conceal the truth, while also acting as the catalysts that lead to truth. Storytelling serves to heal as well as to damage. The doubleness shapes the play into a complex riddle that readers and viewers will take great pleasure in puzzling over.