ITAC’s The Drawer Boy Balances Humor & Depth

Robert Gardner (left) and Steve Shaffer;
Photo by Meg Merckens
 

by Gerry Roe
Amana—The Drawer Boy tells the story of a young actor who inserts himself into the lives of two bachelor farmers. Miles, the actor, is part of a 1972 Toronto group with the goal of creating plays about rural life. In order to gather material, the actors are sent into the country to learn about Ontario farm life and to bring their stories back to the group. The result was The Farm Show, which was first presented to the farm families with whom the actors lived for a time and from whom the stories were collected. Later The Farm Show spread across Canada including performances in urban centers such as Ottawa, Stratford, and Manitoba.

In Healey’s 1999 play, Miles (Alex Shockley) arrives at the small farm run by Morgan (Robert Gardner) and Angus (Steve Shaffer), lifelong friends and veterans of World War II. Miles asks to live on the farm for a while in order to research farming and farm life. In exchange, he will help out with chores. With some reluctance, Morgan agrees and sets about “teaching” Miles, assigning him useless tasks and providing gross misinformation about the farming business. City boy Miles is naïve enough to take his jobs seriously and the exchanges between Morgan and Miles provide much of the humor in the first act. Assigned to spend time with the cows, Miles thinks he can interpret their mooing and finds in it evidence of their incipient terror of insufficient milk production leading to their demise and conversion to beef. Morgan could be seen as cruel for taking advantage of the naïve Miles but Gardner’s subtlety lets us in on the fact that he is merely playing practical jokes on him.

Angus, the drawer boy whose talent for drawing could have allowed him a university education and a career in architecture if he hadn’t gone to war and lost his memory through a head injury, now relies on Morgan as his only link to his own past. Morgan keeps that past alive by telling Angus the story of two friends from childhood (a drawer boy and a farmer boy) who played together, grew up, joined the army, and met two girls “one tall, the other taller,” and who planned to build two houses “connected but separate” for them and the girls.

Enough about the plot. Go see this play and the plot will emerge sufficiently. The real reason to see the play is the characters and the performances. In addition to the humor, there is great depth in the characters and in the actors’ performances. Robert Gardner as Morgan is masterful in his portrayal, showing us his burden of caring for his friend, as well as his private burden of keeping Angus functioning in spite of the memory loss and the pain of his terrible headaches. Steve Shaffer’s Angus is utterly convincing as he shuffles along in his confused state, pathetic at times, amusing at times, and never setting a foot wrong. These are bravura performances, deeply moving in their shared existence, and inspiring in their portrayal of friendship’s demands and rewards. Alex Shockley’s Miles is amusing in his apparent haplessness but thoroughly convincing in his ability to discern the flaw in Morgan’s story.

Thomas Johnson’s set design is attractive and efficient, evoking the bachelors’ farm kitchen and a bit of the outdoors beyond. Johnson’s direction seems low-keyed but it is extremely effective. In a pre-show message to the audience, Johnson said directing was easy because all he had to do was let these talented actors go. Anyone who has ever directed a show can see beneath his comment and recognize the work involved in giving actors their freedom and helping them select the various routes to their successful performances.

The Drawer Boy runs through September 16, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays at 1:30 p.m. Tickets can be reserved by calling the ITAC box office at 319-622-3222 or via email: itac@southslope.net. Tickets are $22.50 for adults and $10 for students, with group rates available as well.

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