'The Drawer Boy' comes home to the Blyth Festival
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
The Drawer Boy is one of those shows that is spoken about reverentially in Blyth Festival circles, along with the one that started it all, The Farm Show, and others like The Outdoor Donnellys.
In speaking with playwright Michael Healey about the success of his play, which premiered in Toronto in 1999, followed by productions in Blyth in both 2000 and 2002, he says The Drawer Boy is in a different place now than when it premiered all those years ago. When it first hit the stage, there were no expectations before it would go on to find audiences all over the world. Healey had written an intimate, contained story for the Blyth Festival audience. Now, however, the play has a reputation and many, myself included, had never seen it, but have always been told about how good it is. It has almost resulted in the play taking on a second life; one before expectations and one after.
Both Blyth Festival patrons and Healey will be happy to know that The Drawer Boy, after nearly a quarter-century, delivers on the promise it first made back in 1999.
There are many things to like about The Drawer Boy on the Blyth Festival Harvest Stage this summer (including everything Cam Laurie’s Miles wears, which perhaps says more about me than it does about costume designer Jennifer Triemstra-Johnston, seeing as how the play is set more than 50 years ago, but everything looks great).
The cast is established and excellent. Stage veterans Randy Hughson as Angus and Jonathan Goad as Morgan are both great and strike Healey’s perfect balance of heart-wrenching sadness, deep and profound friendship and that quick farmer wit and sense of humour Blyth Festival audiences know and love, both on and off stage.
Laurie is the relative newcomer with just two Festival credits to his name (2013’s Falling: A Wake and Our Beautiful Sons: Remembering Matthew Dinning in 2016, in addition to being a member of the Young Company in the early 2000s). He has the bounce in his step of a young, up-and-coming actor - which is great, because he is one, in addition to playing one - and he fits with the other two men in the imperfectly perfect way the story requires.
Artistic Director Gil Garratt, who also directed the show after playing Miles in the Festival production years ago, made the decision to bring in accomplished musicians Anne Lederman and Graham Hargrove to play throughout, in addition to before the play and during intermission. That decision truly lifts The Drawer Boy to another level.
The play is not traditionally produced with live music, but Garratt went out on a limb with this choice, paying homage to The Farm Show in the year of its 50th anniversary, a show in which music played an integral role. The work of Lederman and Hargrove, in the open air of the Harvest Stage, is a magnificent addition to the show.
In The Drawer Boy, Healey tells the story of a fictionalized version of Miles Potter, the well-known actor, director and cast member of The Farm Show in 1972. Potter came to Huron County with Paul Thompson and his team of Theatre Passe Muraille actors to spend weeks with local farmers, living with them and learning from them. The result was The Farm Show, a show that would forever change the world of Canadian theatre and lead, more or less, to the creation of the Blyth Festival.
Healey has created the home of Angus and Morgan in The Drawer Boy, two friends who live and farm together after Angus suffered a debilitating brain injury in World War II. Miles lives with them for a few weeks, pitching in to the best of his ability (he’s an actor from Toronto, after all) and learning what he can about life on the farm and bringing it back to rehearsal.
For those of us who know the history of The Farm Show and the Blyth Festival, after 50 years (in the case of The Farm Show) we’ve learned that actors and farmers aren’t that different after all. The relationship between the Festival and its community is a testament to that, but all relationships have to start somewhere.
Laurie is engaging and wide-eyed as Miles; a perfect sponge, eager to soak up as much as he can from Angus and Morgan for his play. Hughson and Goad are both powerful, yet warm in roles originated by theatre titans David Fox and Jerry Franken, respectively.
The story is so touching that it’s easy to find yourself in any or all of the three men on stage at different times during the show. It’s at once hyper-local and universal, which is surely the impossible balance that has made The Drawer Boy one of the country’s most successful plays ever written.
Garratt’s direction is simple, yet effective. He really leaves it up to Hughson, Goad and Laurie to tell the story with minimal interference, with the exception of atmospheric musical support from Lederman and Hargrove that only heightens the impact of what’s happening on stage in a way you don’t even realize is happening.
Additionally, the Harvest Stage is an ideal home for the show, both in terms of the music and for the production itself. It just serves to enhance the local nature of the story being told and the people being portrayed. It feels like a Huron County story that has come home for the summer.
Before the production, Garratt said the show has been dedicated to two instrumental figures in the Huron County theatre world: Ray Bird, a long-time supporter of the arts who owned the barn in which The Farm Show was first performed, and the aforementioned Fox. The show feels like a fitting tribute to them and to all of the other professionals and volunteers who helped get the Festival to where it is today.
The Drawer Boy ends its run on July 16. It is followed by Drew Hayden Taylor’s Cottagers and Indians (July 21 to Aug. 6), Marie Beath Badian’s The Waltz (Aug. 11-27) and Cheryl Foggo’s John Ware Reimagined (Sept. 1-24).