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Opening the Boy in Drawer Boy

By Chris Illich

Everyone’s ‘lived’ experience varies from one individual to another, and in order to completely understand whom an individual is, you either have to learn from them through their stories, or by experiencing the very nature which they live in.

The Drawer Boy (1999) by Canadian playwright Michael Healey explores these ideas, by revisiting the stories told in The Farm Show by Theatre Pass Muraille, which was written by Paul Thompson and Ted Johns in 1972.

“Thompson took a group of actors from Toronto and went to Clinton, ON, and interviewed people from around there about what it was like to live and work on a farm. Those experiences shaped what would become The Farm Show,” explained Monica Dufault, Director of Essential Collective Theatre’s [ECT] production of The Drawer Boy.

“Fast-forward 27 years to The Drawer Boy, what Michael Healey has done, is he has looked back at the process of making the play, and has a young actor and writer in Miles go and live with a pair of old farmers (Angus and Morgan) to find out and experience what it is like to live on a farm.”

The Drawer Boy reads as a classic fish-out-of-water story. It has been promoted with every ‘catch-all’ phrase in the book – ‘heartwarming’, ‘moving’, ‘touching’ – has won a significant number of prizes including a Governor General’s Award, and has been translated into many different languages for performances around the world.

All this praise is due to the complexity of the narrative, the empathy created for the characters and the power of storytelling.

Angus and Morgan have been living together as bachelors since the Second World War, and Angus has been suffering from a brain injury since the war and has lost his sense of memory. Thus, Morgan feeds him the same fictional story over and over again, in order to shelter Angus from his painful past.

It isn’t until Miles shows up on their farm that his Angus’ past is fully realized through his interactions with Miles.

“Basically, as the play progresses, we come to see that there are different reasons for why he is filling in the blanks the way he is. Underneath the beautifully-written comedy, there is a sense of mystery that is uncovered through the play,” said Dufault.

The Drawer Boy is ECT’s second performance of the season; the first being the Regionally toured The Fighting Days. ECT had over 50 applicants for roles in The Drawer Boy, which were eventually given to J.D. Nicholsen (Morgan), Tony Munch (Angus) and Landon Doak (Miles).

Nicholsen and Munch have spent their past years working at the Blythe Festival in Huron County, and according to Munch, “thought that we should perform The Drawer Boy. We were thinking about where we could do it and lo and behold, we saw that ECT was auditioning for the play.”

Prior to their auditions, neither Nicholsen nor Munch put any thought into which character they would like to portray. “We both liked both roles. We also knew the original actors who played those roles and we have a great amount of respect for them, so we weren’t really sure. Basically we had to audition reading out the parts that we had practiced the night before,” explained Munch.

Much like Miles, the young actor seeking information and knowledge, Doak has been thrust into his role straight out of George Brown Theatre School. This past summer, Doak worked at the Shaw Festival Theatre performing in both Woman of No Importance and Dance of Death. As Doak explained, he finds portraying the character of Miles to be challenging because they share such similar traits: “I’ve really had to play with the idea of ‘what of Miles is like me’ and ‘what is different’, because it’s really too easy to go in and play myself, so I’ve really been wrestling with that.”

“This is such a great opportunity for an actor like Landon – fresh out of theatre school – to get to learn from both J.D. and Tony. I imagine Landon will just learn so much from them because they are both such seasoned actors,” said Dufault.

With a history rich in agriculture, the Niagara Region is the perfect environment to house such a production. Dufault explained that, “When I was doing some promotional work for The Fighting Days, we went to the Welland farmers market and you could just hear the sensibilities and rhythm of speech from this play when you would talk to the local farmers. I really hope that some people are able to come out and maybe see a reflection of their own lives. The play leads us to respect the lives of the people who live on the rural properties and work on them throughout their lives. It engenders that respect, which I really appreciate.

Essential Collective Theatre will be performing The Drawer Boy from Feb. 23-Mar. 3 at Robertson Theatre at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre.

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