This article was corrected on June 5, 2003.
Elia Kazan once summed up William Inge’s talent as “not thunder and lightning, but insight and tenderness.” These words perfectly describe the subtle power of author Michael Healey and his unpretentious three-character drama, “The Drawer Boy,” selected by Time magazine as one of the best plays of 2001. We’re gently tugged, rather than tossed into the story, and in this production, director Martin Benson treats potentially maudlin material with total avoidance of tear-jerking histrionics. His resolutely restrained approach could have resulted in dullness, but instead blossoms into a stirringly beautiful study of damaged lives.
Set on a central Ontario farm in 1972, the plot focuses on two middle-aged bachelors: brain-damaged Angus (Jimmie Ray Weeks), incapable of recalling events for more than a few minutes at a time, and Morgan (Hal Landon Jr.), who feeds him romantic fantasies about his past. A young actor, Miles (J. Todd Adams), disturbs their dysfunctional but workable routine when he suggests living with them as part of research for a show his theater group is preparing about farm life.
Healey holds off on the plot’s tragic elements by emphasizing freshly conceived fish-out-of-water comedy. “How does a cow feel?” asks Miles, with Actors Studio seriousness, while Morgan wryly tortures him about the realities of slaughtering cows when they don’t produce enough milk.
James Youmans’ ultra-realistic farmhouse set, along with Karl Fredrik Lundeberg’s rumbling tractor sounds, place us firmly in an isolated, rustic environment. John Philip Martin’s lighting of a slow sunrise is so convincing that we viscerally soak in the daily continuity of milking cows and feeding chickens.
All goes well at first, but Miles can’t resist delving into the Morgan-Angus relationship, inciting Angus’ dormant curiosity and forcing Morgan to reluctantly replace his fairytales with the bitter truth. At times, the plot buildup is leisurely and random, until the pieces interlock and we see Healey has constructed his tale with the delicacy and intricacy of a Swiss watch.
Atmospheric and well-done as “The Drawer Boy” is, it’s necessary to push past one implausibility — Morgan’s passive acceptance of Miles’ relentless interference. Logically, Morgan would have thrown out this meddlesome stranger rather than risk exposure, and his toothless line, “You’re not being very helpful,” is unsatisfying. By that time, however, the altercations are gripping enough to sweep reservations aside.
As the childlike Angus, Weeks is careful to steer clear of stereotyped gestures and expressions that scream “mentally ill,” so that his every action is a valid reflection of inner confusion and pain. He leads us into Angus’ mind, showing how the light of understanding can break through years of tangled darkness. Weeks’ portrayal also makes us comprehend the kind of man Angus was before his World War II injury. Landon’s Morgan is harsh but never cruel, guilt-ridden but compassionate, and it’s a great relief to watch him reveal his mistakes and flaws without disintegrating into a stock villain.
Adams wittily conveys an actor’s pomposity, and his unaffected charm lends warmth to scenes when he bonds with Angus and provokes the concluding revelations. These disclosures, like the rest of the play, never erupt into the violence we expect, and the absence of conventional, inflated fury enables us to perceive the characters even more sharply as flesh-and-blood human beings.