Review: “The Drawer Boy” (Redtwist Theatre)

Brian Parry and Aaron Kirby/Photo: Jan Ellen Graves
Brian Parry and Aaron Kirby/Photo: Jan Ellen Graves

Show: The Drawer Boy

Company: Redtwist Theatre

Venue: Redtwist Theatre (1044 W. Bryn Mawr)

Die Roll: 14

Normally, I am able to whip out a review within a few hours of seeing a show.  My routine when seeing a show goes something like this:

  1. Get to theatre half an hour before curtain
  2. Meet my theatre buddy of the moment who is attending with me
  3. Watch show
  4. Go get a drink with my theatre buddy of the moment, and discuss what we just saw.
  5. Go home and write review in about an hour.

If I am writing a review for a show that I don’t like, it takes me less time to write than for one that I do like.  I blame the longer time for a positive review on the fact that I have to find just the right way to explain why a show affected me in a way that is not only valid, but important.  Twice in the last year, the time a review has taken me to write has extended into what could be called a really long time.  Such is the case with this review of Redtwist Theatre’s current production of “The Drawer Boy”.  The reason I’ve taken a week to get my thoughts coherently arranged on this play, is that I’m still processing a massive melange of thoughts and feelings that were evoked by the script, the performances, and the perfect staging.  Without reading further, you can probably guess that this play, under the direction of Scott Weinstein, will be receiving my highest possible rating.  Yet, I encourage you to read on, for I’d like to share my thoughts with you. I’m still working through them, so it’s likely that my thoughts won’t be nearly as cogent or coherent as the play itself.

As you may know, Redtwist Theatre is a tiny space in the Edgewater neighborhood.  They recently have made plans to expand into a second storefront adjacent to their current space, but as of this moment, it’s a really small theatre, and so it is always impressive to see the scope of productions that they can make happen.  With the limited space, they create an entire world and immerse you in the environment fully.  The world of “The Drawer Boy” is a farm in rural Canada in the year 1972.

Brian Parry, Adam Bitterman and Aaron Kirby/Photo: Jan Ellen Graves
Brian Parry, Adam Bitterman and Aaron Kirby/Photo: Jan Ellen Graves

The specific setting is the kitchen and front porch of a single farmhouse inhabited by two aging farmers and their house guest, an actor (Aaron Kirby) who has come to town to learn about farming and create a play about the people and animals involved.

The farmers, Morgan (Adam Bitterman) and Angus (Brian Perry), are lifelong friends who grew up together, went to war together, returned home together, and now live together.  Angus suffered some brain damage during the war (World War II) while the two were stationed in England.  Since then, Morgan has been a sort of caretaker for his friend.

There are only three characters in this play.  And yet, there are truly more.  Sure, the dialogue leads to mentions of others in the community, but they are not of whom I speak.  No, I’m talking about the set and the soundtrack.  From the moment that the lights rise, the house in which the characters live is a character unto itself.  Eric Luchen’s set fills the space with a beautifully rendered country kitchen.  The individual boards of the front porch feel as if they’ve been there for years.  The old refrigerator and stove feel like they’re both cared-for and lived-in.  It is a kitchen in which Angus makes sandwiches.  He makes a lot of sandwiches.  And it feels right for him to casually and constantly operate within these walls.  The clapboard siding that extends off stage gives a sense that the rest of the house really is there.  It is a house that has meant much to the two friends, and you get the sense that it is their entire world.

Karli Blalock’s soundscape includes the songs that come from the kitchen radio as well as the sounds from around the farm.  One of the most vivid moments within the play is created entirely off stage as we hear Morgan attempting to teach Miles to drive a tractor.  The recording and mixing of that scene makes it seem like we were on the farm in hearing range of the event.  It is impressive.  There is something special about seeing a show that can make you feel as if you’re within the world that it is creating.  Sure, the acting is important in creating that illusion, but really well executed technical aspects take things to a whole other level, and the sound and set in this play definitely do that.

Another piece of the puzzle that allowed this world to envelop me is the dialect work.  Canadians don’t really tend to sound too far different from Americans.  It would be easy to do this show in standard American dialects and not worry about the subtle differences that make the citizens of Canada sound distinctly different than your average Midwesterner.  But, the work done by the actors and dialect coach Elise Kauzlaric is clearly evident.  They consistently reinforced the play’s universe.

Adam Bitterman and Brian Parry/Photo: Jan Ellen Graves
Adam Bitterman and Brian Parry/Photo: Jan Ellen Graves

Now… All of those aforementioned aspects of the production were integral to making this play experiential for me, rather than just observational.  And that would have made for an affecting piece of theatre unto itself, but the true effect of this play is in its story of personal myth-making.

Most of us live within a myth of our own making.  We are the heroes of our own stories.  Or, if not the heroes, then at least the protagonists.  None of us look at ourselves without some sort of subjective filter that we apply in order to get through the daily drudgery.  Seldom do we confront the whole truth of who we are, because we aren’t even capable of it.  We tell ourselves stories of who we are and we believe them.  At our most basic level, we are those stories.

Michael Healey’s “The Drawer Boy” is a play about the stories that help us know who we are.  More importantly, it is a play about what happens when someone lives within the memories that are created through someone else’s stories.  Angus’ head wound, which occurred in England during WWII, has left him with little to no short term memory.  He is skilled at mathematics, and he’s a gentle soul who bakes and prepares food for his best friend.  He likes to hear stories.  One story in particular is his favorite, the story of the Farmer Boy and the Drawer Boy (Morgan and himself, respectively).  This is probably the best place to mention that I had always thought the title of this play referred to drawers in a cabinet or dresser, not a person who draws.  But, seeing the play clears that up after about half an hour or so.  Anyway… Morgan has spent many nights over the last thirty years telling Angus the story of how they grew up, ran away to the army, fell in love with two British girls, and how they came home again.  The story isn’t necessarily a happy one, but it rings with truth.  The problem is, it isn’t true.  Much of it is based upon things that really happened to the men, but because Angus can’t remember much, Morgan has been free to alter the details and create a better story.

For Angus, that story is his world.  His world is constructed around the falsehoods that Morgan put into the story.  Those falsehoods are only discovered when Miles, the actor, appropriates the tale for his show after overhearing it one night.  Seeing the story performed by someone else unlocks some blocks in Angus’s mind, and eventually leads to some repressed memories surfacing.  That’s really an over-simplification of the plot, but I don’t want to recite the play to you.  It would be better for you to make the trip to Redtwist to experience it for yourself.

There are so many issues addressed in this play.  It’s a tale of well intentioned brainwashing.  It is a story about repressed memories.  It is an exploration of what it means to be a friend.  It is an inquiry into who gets to protect who, and what is fair.  It is a challenge to those who believe they have a right to force others to confront their truths and falsehoods.  It is a study of love, loss, human frailty, and human responsibilty, all mixed into a little bit of hope and clinging to what give us meaning.  If everything is subjective anyway, then what is truth?  It isn’t easy to encapsulate, but it is important, vital, and vibrant.

As this is getting to be a long article, I’ll put this in a nutshell for you: This play made me feel and think.  That’s sort of the goal of all theatre, really.  How this production stands out is that it makes me feel and think still, over a week later.  I believe I’ll be parsing through those thoughts for some time, sorting through the feelings many months from now.  It is beautifully written, wonderfully staged, and skillfully acted.  I’ll recommend it to anyone who’ll give me a moment to mention it.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: We each live in a myth of memory.  But whose?

RATING: d20 – “One of the Best”