How are you going to keep them in drama class after they've been down on the farm? That's the question facing the three-man cast of The Drawer Boy, a culture-clash tale conceived by Canadian playwright Michael Healey and directed by Fran Hilgenberg at Theatre Downtown.
In 1972, theater major Miles (Daniel Cooksley) gets shagged out to rural Ontario to pick up some earthy background for an ill-defined writing project. Picking a farm at random, he moves in with its residents, Morgan (David Bass) and Angus (Dean Walkuski), trading labor for working-class cultural awareness. Between blisters and industrial accidents, Miles learns the rhythms of "work or starve" and even takes a shot at selling Soviet collectivism in the capitalist heartland. Morgan isn't buying, and Angus can't hold an idea from minute to minute: He lost his long-term memory in World War II. Painful as their interaction is, all of the involved parties get something useful out of it raw stories, a bigger worldview and a chance to recover genuine memories, not just live a convenient fiction.
The Drawer Boy overcomes its obscure title to show the collision of three differing realities. Morgan is a hardworking, no-nonsense farmer, fully aware of the natural dictum to produce or starve. Miles comes from a more abstract world he finds cows fascinating, but the bit about throwing hay bales makes his back sore. Angus, meanwhile, lives in a repetitious fable, but Miles' probing brings him back from happiness to accepting the pain of a loneliness that will never be filled.
While this strong drama will take you places you might never have visited before, the whole story is laced with a Canadian sense of humor that pokes and prods at our city ways. Bass' deadly serious Morgan harasses Cooksley's Miles with nonsensical chores like rotating the crops and shuffling the eggs. He's so convincing you almost want to help befuddled Miles wash the gravel until you see how Cooksley's character grows and changes without showing it outwardly, eventually becoming Morgan's equal. The real work comes from Walkuski's apparently simple-minded Angus. He's not a man to be pitied, nor a fool; he's just a guy with a memory problem, flipping easily into the real world and just as quickly reverting. You like but never pity him not even when you discover what really happened to him.
The joy of the show is its crisp transitions between the silliness of city/country humor and a real exploration of friendship and what it means to care for those you may have damaged (however unintentionally). Yet this isn't a story about pluck overcoming adversity. It's a story about how important it is for everyone to get out of his or her shell occasionally and meet someone new … and torture that new guy as much as possible. If only it had a catchier title.
The Drawer Boy
Through Sept. 25