In the early 1970s, a group of Canadian actors traveled to rural South Ontario to interview local farmers and their families about their lives, and the result was a theatrical event called The Farm Show. Twenty-five years later, one of those actors, Michael Healey, wrote a play about what this experience had meant to him. His resulting 1999 dramedy The Drawer Boy has since become a regional theater favorite, and the nigh-on perfect production now playing at Beverly Hills’ Theatre 40 makes it clear just why The Drawer Boy has tickled so many fancies and touched so many hearts.

20something Miles (Kris Frost) is Healey’s stand-in, an eager and altogether too gullible young actor who’s arrived at a farm run by longtime best friends Morgan (Robert Mackenzie) and Angus (Daniel Leslie) in search of inspiration.  Morgan rather grudgingly agrees to let him stick around for a while, on condition that he help with the farm work. This involves Miles’s driving a tractor (until he nearly runs over Morgan when he’s unable to get the vehicle out of reverse), and later hauling something like six hundred bales of hay off a wagon and into an “escalator thing.” It never occurs to Miles that the stories Morgan is telling him (such as saying that the reason their cows work extra hard producing milk is that they know that the one who produces the least will be the next one slaughtered) might not be true.  The naïve city lad believes everything he’s told, to considerable audience glee.

If Angus has had little say in whether Miles should go or stay, it’s because he can’t remember who the young man is from one moment to the next. Angus suffers from short term memory loss, the result of brain damage incurred during a London air raid in World War II. Though he can still add up figures in his head faster than any pocket calculator, Angus has become what used to be called “retarded,” and it’s probably only because Morgan has remained his friend and caretaker throughout the years that Angus has continued to live a relatively happy and even productive life.

One night, Miles overhears Morgan telling Angus a story about their past, a tale he has clearly told more times that he could possibly count over the past thirty years. It’s the story of two best friends and two young British women, “one tall and the other one taller,” who fell in love with those two best buds, came to America with them after the war, and stayed until tragedy struck.  Sad as the ending to this story is, Angus seems comforted by hearing it told, and Miles determines to turn Morgan’s words into a monolog which will be part of the show he and his actor colleagues are preparing.

Still, in the world of The Drawer Boy, nothing is as it seems, and besides the play’s humor and heart, there is also a mystery central to Morgan and Angus’s story, one which is sure to keep audience members glued to their seats in anticipation of its revelation. Expect surprises, laughter, and a tear or two.

Central to the success of Theatre 40’s production of The Drawer Boy is Melanie MacQueen’s pitch-perfect direction and the spot-on casting of three T40 vets.

Mackenzie has already dazzled Theatre 40 audiences with his tour de force performance in Another Vermeer, one which earned him a place on StageSceneLA’s Best Of lists in the category Best Performance By A Lead Actor In A Drama, and with his excellent turn that same year in Pen, which scored a second mention, in the category Best Performance By A Supporting Actor In A Drama. The actor has just the right wry crustiness to make the role of Martin a perfect fit, and a spontaneity which makes for the best kind of acting, the kind you don’t see.

Leslie is also a commanding stage presence with a great, booming voice, and its nice to see him cast in just the right role, Angus being a much better fit than Septimus in Violet Sharp.  You buy this intelligent actor as the now mentally challenged Angus, and when he breaks down into sobs in the second act, the effect is shattering.

I’ve seen Frost once previously in a Theatre 40 production, but it’s the role of Miles that has made me sit up and take notice. Frost too seems never to be acting, simply being, and his combination of boy-next-door sexiness and earnest good will earns audience sympathy from the get-go. It’s a terrifically winning performance.

Jeff J. Rack’s set is one of his very best ever, giving us Morgan and Angus’s rundown kitchen-living area, painstakingly appointed, surrounded by barn and rusty corrugated iron shed.  Dan Reed’s equally fine lighting varies according to time of day or whether the light is natural or artificial. The uncredited costumes are a nice choice for the three characters and the also uncredited sound design provides a kind of between-scene flashback soundtrack to the time the two farmers were with the two tall girls they loved, a soundtrack which includes hit songs of the era.

This brings me to the first of two quibbles. Blackouts between scenes last way too long, especially for a one-set show. If this is to allow costume changes, then costumes need to be changed much faster or changed less frequently.  There is no need for blackouts to last so long, particular as there are so many of them.  Second, sporadic attempts at Canadian accents sound more like what Americans think Canadians sound like than the real thing.  Either some time with a dialect coach, or simply doing without pseudo-Canadian accents, would be an improvement. The Drawer Boy is just fine without the “aboots.”

These quibbles are minor.  This is an outstanding production, well rehearsed, beautifully cast, superbly directed and performed. Theatre 40 audiences are in for something special indeed.

Theatre 40, 241 S. Moreno Dr., Beverly Hills.

–Steven Stanley
April 7, 2010
                                                                         Photos: Ed Krieger

Comments are closed.