Michael Healey's The Drawer Boy will inevitably be turned into a blockbuster motion picture. Given the glowing reviews it gets everywhere, I'll give it a year -- two, tops. And while I'm making predictions, I suspect that in the transition from stage to screen it will be utterly ruined. But it doesn't take a psychic to see that one coming. It simply can't be helped.
The Drawer Boy is already laden with the kind of sentimental Oscar-scented schmaltz that Hollywood revels in. I can see Robert Duvall's face in the trailer and hear that anonymous, booming voice going on and on about "the healing powers of one man's imagination." I bet it comes out just in time for Christmas, so forgive me if I hurl in advance. But in spite of The Drawer Boy's gooey center, Canadian playwright Healey has crafted a simple story with vastly tragic implications. At its best it begs comparisons to Steinbeck or to the sweeping family sagas of Sam Shepard. At its worst, it is still better than just about anything Alfred Uhry ever wrote. M.I.S.T.E. Productions, an independent theater company spearheaded by Memphis stage vet S.A. Weakley, deserves a round of applause for snatching this unlikely gem out from under the noses of our more high-profile playhouses and giving it a solid Mid-South premiere.
The Drawer Boy, set in Canada in the early 1970s, follows Miles, a doe-eyed theater student determined to "blow the minds" of his urban counterparts by going out into the countryside and learning about how real farmers live. He's idealistic, inspired by the Soviet model of farming at a time when lefties could still say that Communism was a great idea that hadn't ever been tried. He's ready to get his hands dirty, till the soil, and actively engage in the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth that defines agrarian society. He finds Morgan and Angus, a pair of aging farmers who are willing to help him out, after a fashion. Morgan comes off as a practical contrarian who aims to see that every set of hands on the farm is working. But the jobs he assigns to Miles are all bizarre and pointless. He has Miles polish rocks, pull undigested corn from manure, and move hay from one field to another. Angus is a sweet but simple man who, having experienced severe head trauma during WWII, can't remember what he's doing from one moment to the next. Miles, poor dupe, has no idea he's being lied to.
There is more to The Drawer Boy than bucolic absurdism aimed at mocking academia, the arts, and consumer culture in general. One evening, Miles overhears Morgan telling Angus a story. It's the story of how Angus became the way he is. It's a romantic wartime tale involving two tall English girls and the handsome American G.I.s who loved them. Miles incorporates the war story and the tragic romance that followed into the play that he is writing, and when Angus sees the scene performed, he has a reawakening. Angus' memory returns in bits and pieces, and with every memory, it becomes more and more likely that the story Morgan had been telling him nightly had all been a lie. It becomes apparent that the truth might be too awful for either man to handle. And Miles, the idealistic playwright who had nothing but the best intentions, is to blame for any consequences.
Weakley has done a fine job staging The Drawer Boy, considering that he also plays the demanding role of Morgan. If at times the show gets a little fuzzy around the edges, it can probably be blamed on the double-duty. By the same token, Morgan is the show's least-developed character. We never get to see his skepticism of the city boy who has come into his home to roost. And if Morgan takes any twisted joy from the absurd tasks he assigns his charge, it's impossible to tell. But these are nitpicky complaints because Weakley is generally believable and effective as the fussy farmer. Steven Burk could likewise stand to develop the character of Miles a little further. He needs to come to grips with Miles' ulterior motives, his easy vanity, shallowness, and potentially exploitative nature. Jim Palmer, on the other hand, is devastating as Angus, the genius-turned-idiot man-child. Whether he's prowling around the house searching for something he's lost or wandering through a field subdividing the heavens and counting the stars, Palmer is infinitely watchable. Palmer has always been one of our best, and this is one of his finest moments.
The Drawer Boy is at TheatreWorks through September 6th. Catch it before Hollywood does, and you won't be sorry.