Grain Man

A simple farmer teaches lessons of patience and wisdom in PRT's The Drawer Boy

Angus can't remember anything for five minutes. Or three minutes. Or two. He has a steel plate in his head from a war injury. His short-term memory is shot. He can count the stars in the night sky in one glance and add columns of numbers in a trice, but he can't remember the ham sandwich he just ate or how he got from the sink to the porch. He's Rain Man in overalls.

Making sure Angus' crushing headaches are tended to, and that he doesn't wander off too far from the barn, is the job of lifelong friend Morgan, a geezer in a John Deere cap and muddy boots. As old bachelor farmers, the two men share a ramshackle house in central Ontario, going through daily rituals of milking and plowing and piling the hay in the "mow." Every night Morgan calms the anxious Angus by reciting their favorite story, about how they once met two pretty English girls, "one tall, one taller." They survived the Blitz together, brought the girls back to Canada, married them in a double ceremony, lived side by side in adjoining houses and then lost their wives in a road accident involving pails of raspberries and an army transport truck. Angus remembers none of it.

There is only one other character in The Drawer Boy, the Michael Healey play now onstage in a poignant and gracefully directed production at Plano Repertory Theatre. Miles is a young actor from Toronto, traveling with a "collective" to gather homespun stories from country folk for a new show about rural life. He moves in with the farmers and takes notes when he's not helping with chores. Morgan exploits the city slicker's naïveté, sending him out to wash rocks and "rotate crops" from one field to another in the middle of the night. Angus doesn't seem to mind Miles' presence. He simply can't remember who he is, greeting him anew each time he sees him.

John S. Davies and Bradley Campbell (background) are bachelor farmers whose city visitor (Will Harper, foreground) uncovers a family secret.
John S. Davies and Bradley Campbell (background) are bachelor farmers whose city visitor (Will Harper, foreground) uncovers a family secret.

Gradually, Miles begins to suspect that Angus isn't as brain-damaged as Morgan says he is. Angus seems to remember flashes of events that don't gibe with the tragic tale Morgan recounts for him night after night. Could it all be a lie concocted to cover an even more painful truth?

On the surface, The Drawer Boy appears to be a simple play about simple men. Even the familiar fish-out-of-water conceit is a simple and overused plot device, as is the "hidden family secret." But except for a few occasions when the dialogue trips over the playwright's attempts at poetic flourishes, this is a fine little drama whose message is as pure and warm as country sunshine. You can see the plot twist at the end coming for a country mile, but by then it doesn't matter. You love these guys. You believe they are these characters. You believe in what they're saying and that what they're experiencing is real. In theater, honesty this raw and authentic is rare.

Healey, a journalist, based his play on reality, a production called The Farm Showthat in 1972 staged monologues and scenes taken from observations a group of Canadian actors and playwrights made of the lives of Clinton, Ontario, farmers. The Drawer Boy, also set in 1972, is Healey's version of what might happen to two old farmers after they see how their lives are translated to the stage. In the play, Morgan (played by John S. Davies) is shocked and angry to discover that his story of the English girls has been lifted word for word by young Miles. For Angus (Bradley Campbell), whose long-forgotten artistic talent explains the title of the play, hearing actors tell that story and seeing how he and Morgan look to outsiders wakes up something in his addled mind. Suddenly, the man "who only knows right now" remembers things that happened decades earlier. This doesn't sit well with Morgan. As is true in so many families, the hundreds of little fictions he has strung together and repeated to Angus over the years have kept the two in a peaceful status quo.

Director Rene Moreno was a perfect choice to stage The Drawer Boy. He's an expert at reining in actors' tendencies to overplay big moments. A role like Angus could be mincemeat in the wrong hands, all comic relief or a pathetic savant a la Dustin Hoffman's toothpick-counter. But Campbell, a bulky man, keeps the character grounded in the tiniest details--how Angus gently makes a sandwich for Morgan and the blank, unapologetic way he says "No idea" whenever he's asked a question that requires his foggy memory to reach into the recent past. This production's emotional wallop comes from Campbell's thoughtful, understated performance.

Not to take much away from Davies. He imbues Morgan with just a tetch of the devil in the way he torments the young visitor. It's the writer's fault, not the actor's, that the role of Morgan suddenly shifts from sadistic trickster-cum-caretaker to sympathetic new age guy in the second act.

As Miles, the inquisitive actor, Will Harper also turns in a first-rate performance, without the actor-y tics and grimaces he's been prone to in other roles. His scenes with Campbell are particularly good. Wisely, although he's doing most of the talking, he keeps the audience tuned to the nearly silent Campbell.

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