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Canadian playwright Michael Healey's The Drawer Boy is a sweet, engaging, and thoughtful tale of two friends. The play debuted in Toronto in 1999, had its U.S. debut at Steppenwolf in 2001, and has become a popular regional offering throughout Canada and the U.S. Set in 1972, this is the story of two farmers, Morgan and Angus, who have been devoted friends since childhood. Their routine life is disrupted when a young student of theatre named Miles arrives, wanting to learn about farming as a "method" tool in presenting a play about farming. When Miles uses the farmers' real story in his play, it changes the lives of all three men. The characters in the Public Theater production are well written and equally well played. It is easy to feel compassion and fondness for each one as soon as he arrives on stage. The story naturally builds to a climax, but is compelling from the get-go, making the entire two hour production richly gratifying.
Jamie Bennett, Jimmie Ray Weeks, Tom Atkins
Photo: Suellen Fitzsimmons
The play begins as Miles arrives at the Ontario farm where Morgan and Angus live. It is apparent immediately, as Miles meets Angus first, that Angus has a serious short-term memory problem. Due to an injury sustained during World War Two, Angus cannot remember from one minute to the next, though he has less problems with long-term memory and is gifted with numbers. Morgan is exceptionally patient with Angus and the need to repeat endlessly for his friend's benefit. He allows Miles to stay on at the farm, to observe the life of a farmer as background for a play Miles' theatre group is presenting. Miles is required to perform farm chores while he stays, though he is pretty ill-suited for this type of work. Morgan takes advantage, in a good natured way, of Miles' earnestness and naivete by pulling his leg as he teaches Miles about farming. Miles believes each story, including the one about the cows worrying all night about who will be slaughtered in the morning for low milk production. Miles also observes the relationship of Morgan and Angus, becoming curious about Angus' injury and his problems with severe headaches, and eventually overhears Morgan telling Angus (obviously, one of many, many tellings) the story of two friends and their journey from childhood to war to love and farming. Miles is so touched by the story that he surprises Morgan and Angus by presenting the story in a local production of his group's play. The reactions of Morgan and Angus fuel more revelations in the second act of The Drawer Boy, bringing to light the hidden story of these two men.
The Public's production of this play is built on solid, high quality elements. The superb set, designed by David Potts, fills the thrust stage with the scene of a farmhouse topped with a weather vane and surrounded by paths, grass, tall trees, and even a flag pole. The open-sided house reveals a perfectly appointed 1972 farm kitchen, complete with avocado-colored appliances. The completeness and authenticity of this set bring the audience totally into the scene and, with Angus sitting at the kitchen table when we enter the theatre, engage us immediately and totally in the story.
The actors, too, are perfect elements in the production. Jamie Bennett's Miles is enthusiastic and passionate about his art, and he is compassionate and respectful of his hosts' lives - the combination of these traits compels him to publicize their private story, though he does it with no malice. Bennett is a likeable actor, bringing out the character of Miles quite well. Pittsburgh native Tom Atkins returns for a 10th season at the Public in the role of Morgan. Morgan seems to carry a large burden, and Atkins' expert performance brings out hints of Morgan's hidden feelings and shows the depth of his friendship with Angus even before the full story is revealed. Atkins is a natural and unobvious actor - excellent in this role. However, the most stunning performance of the evening belongs to Jimmie Ray Weeks as Angus. Everything his character feels is subtly transferred to the audience, instilling the emotions and frustrations of Angus's difficult life with dignity and respect. This is a role that could easily be played with maudlin excesses, but Weeks embodies Angus so completely, there seems to be no acting involved. This is a wonderful, complementary trio of actors.
The components of a sumptuous set, excellent lighting by Phil Monat, beneficial incidental music by Peter Kater, and a cast of excellent actors are all brought together with great success by director Marshall W. Mason. From beginning to end, this is a powerful and satisfying evening of theatre.
The Drawer Boy runs through April 13 at the O'Reilly Theater for Pittsburgh Public Theater. For ticket and schedule information, call 412-316-1600 or visit www.ppt.org.
It's difficult to review student productions since their resources are much more limited than that of commercial productions. But I would be remiss to not at least report on the current production of the Pittsburgh Playhouse Conservatory Company (the Point Park College of Performing Arts undergraduate theatre company), William Finn and James Lapine's A New Brain. A semi-autobiographical story based on Finn's experiences, this nearly sung-through musical tells of New Yorker Gordon Schwinn, a frustrated composer currently writing songs for childrens' show host frog Mr. Bungee. Gordon has a sudden life-threatening medical emergency when a congenital brain condition becomes acute. His story and journey is played out humorously and touchingly (and often fantastically) through songs about his dysfunctional family, his friends, his lover, his inner struggles, and his way of facing possible death. The score provides clever and humorous lyrics along with several gorgeous ballads.
The black box theatre is setup in a four-sided configuration with the audience in two halves, facing each other, and set walls for the other two facing sides. The set is inventive and delightful, with the walls full of doors, drawers, and windows of varying sizes (with an assortment of handles made from everyday objects), and moveable set pieces including a piano and a bed that slide in and out of these openings. The cast members also enter and exit through many of the openings, and occasionally the doors open for props to be thrust out in support of the music and lyrics (to particularly good effect in the song "Calamari"). The cast is directed well to try to accommodate both halves of the audience, but it is a difficult and constant challenge.
Direction (Scott Wise) is tight and the choreography (Lynda Martha-Burkel and Scott Wise) is admirably designed for the restricting, small stage. In several scenes, there is a lot of choreographed movement with a dozen or more performers each doing something different. Yet, there are no conflicts. The choreography and direction are inventive, entertaining, and novel - well designed and well executed.
Music provided by a a six-person ensemble, conducted by Douglas Levine, is excellent and never overwhelms the cast or the room.
The Playhouse staff and faculty should be commended for tackling this rarely performed, contemporary and quirky piece. It's also wonderful to note that the student performers and crew are up to the task of such a challenge.
A New Brain runs through April 6 at the Pittsburgh Playhouse Studio Theatre. For more information, call 412-621-4445.
Pittsburgh Playhouse, Playhouse Conservatory Company at Point Park College, Ronald Allan-Lindblom, Artistic Producing Director, present A New Brain. Musica and lyrics by William Finn. Book by James Lapine and William Finn. Originally produced by Lincoln Center Theatre, New York City. Vocal Arrangements by Jason Robert Brown. Directed by Scott Wise. Musical director Douglas Levine. Choreography by Lynda Martha-Burkel with additional choreography by Scott Wise. Sets by Stephanie Mayer. Lighting by Andrew David Ostrowski. Costumes by Don DiFonso. Sound by Elizabeth Atkinson. Speech Penelope.
Cast: Ngozi Anyanwu, Ryan Faino, Jonathan Fadoul, Marissa Fogel, Daina Michelle Griffith, Dave Jans, Erin Ann Mackin, Jacob Crew Madison, John Magaro, Jason A. McIntyre, Missy Moreno, Joshua Potter, Jill Predragovich, Marcus Stevens, Jacinda Rose Swinehart. Orchestra: Susanna Reilly, Ben Opie, Paul Thompson, Kurt McNaught, Thomas Wendt, Douglas Levine.