Canadian writer Michael Healey's play about two middle-aged farmers in 1972 Ontario and the young actor who comes to stay with them got a big assist when Steppenwolf produced it with John Mahoney in 2001. Mahoney reprised the role of crusty Morgan at the Abbey in Dublin and the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey, and "The Drawer Boy" became one of the most-produced shows on the regional circuit in the early part of the last decade.
But its homespun charm (not to mention its three-actor, one-set economic appeal) has kept it in heavy rotation in smaller theaters. Filament Theatre and the Den in Wicker Park co-produced it earlier this year at the latter's home base, and now Buffalo Theatre Ensemble at the College of DuPage delivers a solid revival under the direction of Kurt Naebig.
Morgan (Jonathan Kraft) and Angus (Robert Jordan Bailey) have lived and farmed together since World War II, when the latter suffered a brain injury during a German bombing raid on London. Angus, who would make a dandy case study for Oliver Sacks if he weren't fictional, has severely impaired memory — though he has a great facility for adding up numbers in his head. He also, at one time, loved designing and drawing houses, giving the play its title. Urban hippie Miles (Jacob Abbas) shows up on their doorstep, hoping to do a literal field study of farm life for a communal theater project much like "The Farm Show" (a landmark production by Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto, which also first produced "The Drawer Boy").
Miles' research takes an unexpected turn when he overhears Morgan telling Angus an apparently oft-repeated story of their lives during and after the war with two English women — "one tall, the other taller" — that ended in tragedy. Miles puts the tale onstage, which enrages Morgan, but jump-starts the frayed wiring in Angus' brain, leading to even further revelations.
The BTE production features a peach of a realistic kitchen-and-yard set by Michael Moon, with four suspended doors overhead providing poetic foreshadowing of Morgan's story and a neat visual metaphor for the "doors" of memory Miles unlocks. It takes a while to find the subtle balance between the broader comedy — much of it based on Morgan exploiting Miles and his rural cluelessness — and the mournful underpinnings of Angus and Morgan's history. But Naebig's focused and warmhearted staging finally allows us to see the connections between the lives we actually live and the stories we tell ourselves about our past.
Healey, wisely, doesn't render any final judgments on whether a kind fiction is morally superior to a painful truth. But what isn't debatable in "The Drawer Boy" is that none of us can survive very long without having someone around with whom we can share our stories.
When: Through July 29
Where: McAninch Arts Center, College of DuPage, 425 Fawell Blvd., Glen Ellyn
Running time: 2 hours
Tickets: $25-$33 at 630-942-4000 or atthemac.orgCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun