Following some two dozen cross-country productions, “The Drawer Boy” has nestled at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse for its long and eagerly awaited New York-area premiere. Michael Healey’s play has both the picturesque texture of John Steinbeck’s dusty gift for storytelling and the kind of earthy grit we have come to expect from Sam Shepard. It has layers of gentle humor as well as a fiercely dark, compelling edge.
Set on an Ontario farm in 1972, the drama observes the quiet life of two weathered buddies united by long-ago tragic events of World War II. Healy has written the piece with an unnerving sense of steely grace and quiet, gnawing power. The cleanly wrought yarn unfolds at a lazy pace that ultimately leads the viewer to a harrowing and numbing conclusion.
Miles (Louis Cancelmi) is a young actor-playwright taken on as a ranch hand in order to absorb the atmosphere and climate of farm life. The young writer oversteps his boundaries when he eavesdrops on his employer’s intimate reflections of the past and appropriates the narrative for his play.
Angus (Paul Vincent O’Connor) a once-promising architect, is a gentle giant saddled with a faulty memory from an air-raid incident, and yet he is an efficient mathematician. A perfectly lovely moment finds him sprawled out beneath the evening sky counting the thousands of sparkling stars.
The staging by Anna D. Shapiro boasts a subtle sensitivity. She has harnessed the play’s poetically lumbering rhythms, as well as its thundering and heartbreaking subtext.
Performances are first-rate. John Mahoney’s coolly understated poultry farmer provides a settling contrast to the burly strength of O’Connor’s volatile Angus. Cancelmi adds a virile rush of boyish enthusiasm to the action.
The drama has an obvious cinematic thrust, and dream-casting a film brings to mind a rush of apt possibilities, though few could challenge the cunning portraits created on the Millburn stage by Mahoney and O’Connor.
Tech support beautifully complements the atmospheric rural environment of central Canada. Todd Rosenthal’s farmhouse has the comfortably weathered look of an Andrew Wyeth painting, and the soft amber lighting design by Kevin Adams casts an enveloping warmth. There is an evening rainstorm that chills the air and provides an effectively stunning spray.
Strands of a funky down-home music score also contribute to frame the scenes with lilting flavor.