The impact of stories drawn from love & memory in TPM’s genuine, funny, haunting The Drawer Boy

Andrew Moodie, Craig Lauzon & Graham Conway. Set and costume design by Joanna Yu. Lighting design by Michelle Ramsay. Photo by Michael Cooper.
Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) opened its remount of Michael Healey’s The Drawer Boy, directed by Factory Theatre AD Nina Lee Aquino, assisted by Cole Alvis, to a sold out house last night. Originally produced by TPM in 1999, Healey’s beloved hit returns to the TPM stage as the theatre celebrates its 50th anniversary.

Set in the early 70s in Southern Ontario, The Drawer Boy hearkens back to another famous TPM production: The Farm Show, created by Paul Thompson and a collective of artists who went down to live and work with area farmers as they created a play about the place and its people. Miles (Graham Conway) is one of these young Toronto actors, and he nervously arrives on the doorstep of Morgan (Andrew Moodie) and Angus’s (Craig Lauzon) farm house, looking for a place to stay, work and learn about farming so he can contribute to the writing and performance of the play.

An odd yet complementary couple of middle-aged bachelors, Morgan and Angus have been friends since childhood, serving together in WWII, finding wives in England and returning to their hometown to set up a farm together. The truly remarkable thing about their relationship is the organic dynamic of Morgan acting as Angus’s memory. Now living with an Acquired Brain Injury after surviving a shell explosion in London, Angus now lives entirely in the present, his memory a sieve; but he’s a wizard with numbers and takes care of the farm’s accounting. Morgan uses stories to remind Angus of their shared past: he is the Farmer and Angus is the Drawer Boy, and they met and fell in love with two tall English girls.

As hard as Miles struggles with farm work, including some hilarious mishaps with equipment and an eye-opening experience spending time with livestock (resulting in a gut-busting impression of a frightened cow), he struggles even harder to write stories for the play. Until he overhears Morgan telling Angus their life story—and he’s struck theatrical gold. When the two farmers attend an invited rehearsal, though, the reactions are markedly different: Angus is delighted and Morgan is infuriated.

Terrified of not having something good to contribute to the play and fearing he’ll be cut from the collective, Miles’ drive and ambition to get a good story puts him in the position of becoming the unwitting catalyst for, and witness to, emerging memories and revised storytelling for Morgan and Angus. Their shared story is not as fairy tale as Morgan originally painted. And the impact of the true story is both revelatory and devastating; highlighting how the choices we make as we create our own life stories touch the lives of others, particularly the ones we love the most, in positive and negative ways.

Lovely, nuanced work from these three actors in this moving, haunting and revealing tale of love, memory and the impact of the stories people tell. Lauzon brings a delightfully child-like sense of wonder to the star counting math wizard Angus; and yet there’s also a troubled, lost quality about Angus as he paces around the house, searching for something he can’t remember. Moodie is both lovable and intimidating as the gruff Morgan; a matter-of-fact man’s man who suffers no fools, there’s a broken-hearted, gentle soul beneath Morgan’s gruff exterior. Extremely patient and caring with Angus, a man of few words becomes a magical storytelling memory maker for his friend, who he clearly loves dearly. And while city boy actor Miles could easily become a clueless caricature, Conway gives him a sharp, desperate sense of ambition and a hilariously satirical edge. And though we may be skeptical about how genuine Miles is in his desire to connect with this world and these people, there’s no doubt that he comes to feel the full impact of the devastating truths he’s unleashed.

With big shouts to the design team, for their beautiful, evocative work: Joanna Yu, whose set combines realism and abstraction, with expressive charcoal drawing flats hanging above and around the vintage farmhouse kitchen and porch; and costume design perfectly suiting the working farm men and the clueless young city boy, who arrives to work in cut-offs, polo shirt and runners. And to Michelle Ramsay’s magical lighting design; and Michelle Bensimon’s timely and haunting sound design and composition.

The Drawer Boy continues in the TPM Mainspace until March 25; get advance tickets online or by calling the box office at: 416-504-7529.

Advertisements

SummerWorks: Hilarious, haunting & high-brow good times in An Evening in July

Briana Templeton & Gwynne Phillips in An Evening in July
Briana Templeton & Gwynne Phillips in An Evening in July

I first saw the Templeton Philharmonic earlier this year in their Toronto Fringe Next Stage Festival production of Unbridled and Unstable. Whip smart and funny, with a talent for vintage characterizations and dialect – it was love at first sight.

The darlings of the Templeton Philharmonic are back, this time with their SummerWorks production of An Evening in July, currently running at St. George the Martyr Anglican Church (197 John St.). I saw the show yesterday – on an afternoon in August.

Inspired by the famous Grey Gardens documentary and Helene de Rothschild’s Surrealist Ball (1972), An Evening in July is a site-specific, immersive theatrical experience, during which the audience is invited to wander the garden courtyard and inside the estate home’s great room (the church hall, transformed), where one may purchase a drink from the cash bar before the show starts. The courtyard is rife with strange and beautiful objets – and we are invited to examine, and even touch, them. We are, however, forbidden to touch the ancient tower with the blue door at the end of the garden. The great room has been set up with banquet tables, covered with cast aside books, including a guest book. On the wall, there’s an old damaged painting of a man that looks as if someone’s put a fist to him.

Sisters May (Briana Templeton) and June (Gwynne Phillips) are a pair of exceedingly privileged and bored socialites, kicking around their crumbling and isolated family estate, with only their man servant Robert (Thom Stoneman) to look after them. Suddenly, an idea! Throw a birthday party for June! And everyone’s invited. Not entirely certain of when that is, they randomly choose an evening in July – like so many other random choices and decisions.

We follow the sisters back and forth between the garden and the house as they plan the party and reminisce about times past, incorporating audience members into their descriptions of various friends and acquaintances. We watch them play a hilarious game of badminton, and once the party is in full swing, are invited to join in a game of cards, and a game of cat and mouse beneath a pink parachute held aloft by all and sundry. Yes – I said pink!

Stellar, hysterically funny and heart-achingly touching performances. As June, Phillips is flippant and bored, and on some new bizarre diet every week – but lonely and wistful, longing for the return of happier times. Templeton’s May is Kate Hepburnesque, with a haughty, critical air and wry wit; there is also a sense of deep melancholy beneath the rich girl good times. Even through their sniping and grumbling, these two sisters love each other a whole bunch. And Stoneman is lovely as the affable and helpful Robert, acting as the sisters’ caretaker and bartender, and the audience’s host and guide.

It’s hilarious, haunting and high-brow good times, where the wit is dry and the bar is wet in An Evening in July.

An Evening in July continues at St. George the Martyr until Aug 16 – see the show page for exact dates/times. Those with mobility issues may secure a permanent seat for the duration of the festivities from the extremely nice Robert.