The Drawer Boy: Celluloid Take on Acclaimed Stage Play Registers Hits and Misses

By Liam Lacey

Rating: B+

Wired for Story is the title of a book from a few years back by Lisa Cron. It’s about your brain on fiction, about the dopamine rush we get from filling in the narrative gaps. The uses and abuses of storytelling serve as the most compelling element of The Drawer Boy, a film adaptation of Toronto writer Michael Healey’s much-awarded and well-travelled 1999 stage play.

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The play had a remount this past summer at Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille as part of the theatre’s 50th anniversary celebrations, not only because it was one of its historic successes but because it’s a play about the company’s beginnings. In the early seventies, director Paul Thompson (who has a cameo here) and a band of young city actors worked and lived among farmers in southwestern Ontario to create the 1972 production, The Farm Show.

The movie, co-directed by Arturo Pérez Torres and Aviva Armour-Ostroff, begins as a kind of travelling-salesman joke. Young Miles (Jakob Ehman), sporting long sideburns and carrying his guitar, knocks on a farmhouse door and tells the skeptical farmer, Morgan (Richard Clarkin) that he’s writing a play about farmers — and can he exchange room and board for farm work? The house is home to two middle-aged bachelors: the terse Morgan, who does the bulk of the farm work, and the friendly, somewhat childlike Angus (Stuart Hughes) who makes sandwiches and does the accounting.

Initially, Morgan has some fun with the eager city-slicker, who wonders if the cows mind being “interfered with” at milking time and is silly enough to wear shorts while handling hay bales. But even the naive Miles, through interrogation and eavesdropping, figures out the relationship between these two men. How the two boys were schoolmates who went to war together, where they met their future brides, though Angus — who could have gone to school to become an architect (the “drawer boy” of the title refers to a boy who draws) — suffered a disabling brain injury during the Blitz that left him with minimal memory retention.

Somehow, he and Morgan returned to Ontario with their fiancés, determined to start a new life. What happened next with the two women marks a division between fact and Morgan’s semi-comforting, somewhat self-serving fiction.

The drama is excellently acted and straightforwardly directed, sticking mostly to the muffin-coloured interiors of a farm house. Brief sequences of the theatre group working on their monologues, derived from the original Farm Show, are lovely. I had quibbles as the play moved into its more sombre, sentimental second half. The “flashbacks” of the two war brides were more awkward than helpful and, at the conclusion, Angus’s voice-over narration of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, At the Wedding March, gets muddied in the audio mix.

Also, I couldn’t help noticing the characters of Morgan and Angus had a lot of parallels to George and Lennie from John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel (and popular stage play) Of Mice and Men. But then again, Steinbeck’s plot is probably indebted to Earnest Hemingway’s short story, The Battler, about a punch-drunk former boxer and his brutally protective cornerman. For me, the resonance was distracting. Arguably, such narrative borrowings, additions, and innovations are at the subject of The Drawer Boy, which focuses on how a story, with a small variation, can either deny or help frame reality.

This year’s Theatre Passe Muraille remount of the play deliberately brought that theme to the foreground, as reviewer Martin Morrow wrote in his Globe and Mail review, “… choosing an Anishinaabe actor, Craig Lauzon, for the role of Angus, the farmer who has become disconnected with his past, and a black actor, Andrew Moodie, to play Morgan, the storyteller whose story is stolen.”

At best, The Drawer Boy works as an often-funny, accessible meta-drama, a reminder that stories tell us as much as we well stories. When we step back and examine their construction — on stage or in a book or a film screen — we’re given tools to help frame our own experiences.

The Drawer Boy. Directed by Arturo Pérez Torres and Aviva Armour-Ostroff. Written by Arturo Pérez Torres and Michael Healey, based on the play by Michael Healey. Starring Jakob Ehman, Richard Clarkin and Stuart Hughes. Opens November 23 at Toronto’s Imagine Carlton Cinema and November 30 at Calgary’s Globe Cinema.