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Farm Aid

Stages' play within a play unlocks The Drawer Boy's memories

Somewhere in that shadowy sweet space between memory and truth live the remarkable characters of Michael Healey's The Drawer Boy. Stunning for both its emotional tenderness and its intellectual grit, the award-winning Canadian script about art, loss and the healing power of stories blossoms under Rob Bundy's careful direction.

Across Mims Mattair's whitewashed farmhouse set lumbers the brokenhearted, middle-aged Morgan (Rutherford Cravens), who tends to his hardscrabble land with a puritanical sense of duty. His best friend, Angus (Ralph Ehntholt), works by his side. But it's clear from the get-go that something's not quite right with the long, thin friend. Angus can't remember anything from one minute to the next. He's in charge of lunch, but he forgets what he's doing by the time he reaches the kitchen. Sometimes Angus gets so upset he can't function at all and must be sent to his room to lie down while Morgan works in the fields. It's a lonely, worn-down existence of meals served up between slices of white bread and hard labor that pays Morgan less than a thousand dollars a year.

The two men cope with the present by telling stories about the past. Under a country-black sky filled with stars that Angus loves to count, Morgan tells tales about their time spent overseas fighting in World War II. He romanticizes the past, turning the banal brutalities of war into the stuff of gossamer films. Ironically, forgetful Angus can recite these invented memories by heart. These fragile stories are all that keep the men's hearts knitted together.

Corby Sullivan (right) plays an actor researching a play about farmers (Ralph Ehntholt and Rutherford Cravens).
Stages Repertory Theatre
Corby Sullivan (right) plays an actor researching a play about farmers (Ralph Ehntholt and Rutherford Cravens).

Details

Through November 10. 713-527-0123; $26-$35
Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway

Into this delicate balance comes Miles (Corby Sullivan), an actor who is "putting on a play about farmers." Young, blond and pink-cheeked, the naive boy wants to stay on the farm so he can learn firsthand what's what with the chickens and cows.

But what Miles gets is the brunt of Morgan's brutal if hysterically funny sense of irony. Teasing the clumsy boy, whose first farm job includes running over Morgan with the tractor, becomes a daily ritual. According to Morgan, terrified cows produce milk to avoid the butcher's knife; chickens grow deeply attached to their eggs, which have to be moved from nest to nest to prevent the hens from getting weepy when they're fried up for Sunday breakfast; and crop rotation means digging up a field of hay one day only to plant it on the other side of the farm the next. All this misinformation makes Miles the laughingstock of his theater troupe.

In fact, it's not until Miles overhears Morgan telling Angus their war stories that the boy finally has something "real" to report. When Miles turns Morgan's story into a scene in the play, the farmers' lives are changed forever. Once Angus sees a rehearsal of the scene, his locked memory cracks open and the bewildered man begins to find his way home.

All the narratives woven into Healey's tender and funny script -- the fictions about farming, war, brain damage and love -- slowly reveal a deeply moving statement about the way we use stories to give our lives meaning.

Of course, without the deft and understated performances Bundy pulls from his terrific cast, the subtleties of Healey's script would be lost. Leading the way is Cravens as the curmudgeonly Morgan. He stomps about with a thin-lipped disappointment in life, his clenched jaw jutting out in bitter response to young Miles's innocence. Cravens's comic timing is also dead on, his comments about sentimental chickens and anguished cows delivered with a sour straight face.

With his schoolboy good looks and lop-sided Midwestern grin, Sullivan's Miles makes the perfect patsy for Morgan's tricks. But Sullivan also knows how to get down to the emotional truth on stage, and he makes us love his character, even as he fails at everything he touches.

As the damaged Angus, Ehntholt must handle some of the most difficult material in the script. Angus can't remember anything, but he's not stupid. Still, without his memories, his personality lacks focus. In the opening scenes, Ehntholt has some difficulty establishing a fully wrought character. Eventually, though, a man with a history, the "drawer boy," begins to emerge. In the end Ehntholt's Angus is a powerful piece of the drama.

Healey's script makes for an all-too-rare night of theater. Quirky, thoughtful, funny and surprisingly moving, his narrative and Bundy's production comment on the power of theater itself, showing us just how important telling stories can be.

 
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