BWW Reviews: DRAWER BOY Features Outstanding Performances but Feels Incomplete
More often than not, my opinion of a production seems to fall in line with the general consensus of other audience members. I frequently receive e-mails saying "I saw your review of [Insert title here], and I have to say I agree with you." But on occasion, my reaction to a play will go against public opinion.
There's no doubt that Michael Healey's play The Drawer Boy is popular and critically acclaimed. Since its premiere in 1999, the pay has won several awards and has been produced by many regional theaters, including Austin's Hyde Park Theatre. Hyde Park's 2004 production won B. Iden Payne Awards for Outstanding Production of a Drama and Outstanding Direction of a Drama as well as Austin Critic Table Awards for Outstanding Production of a Comedy and Outstanding Lead Actor of a Comedy (we'll get to that dichotomy of comedy and drama in a moment). Given the success of Hyde Park's 2004 production, it's no surprise that they've decided to revive it ten years later. While the current production has some strong points and has earned numerous positive reviews, there seems to be something missing. It has all the ingredients to pack an emotional punch, and yet it nonetheless feels incomplete.
Most of that is due to Healey's text. The play follows two Canadian farmers who have been best friends since World War II. Morgan (Ken Webster) is very protective of Angus (Michael Stuart) as a war injury has left Angus with severe memory loss. Angus's long term memory is spotty at best, and his short term memory is practically nonexistent. Perhaps it's the text's mentions of Angus's occasional moments of violence or Michael Stuart's imposing stature, but the similarities between Drawer Boy and Of Mice and Men are easily apparent. However, Healey is no Steinbeck and Morgan and Angus aren't nearly as developed as George and Lennie. The comparisons don't do Healey's work any favors and makes it difficult for his play to find its own voice.
Healey also struggles with balancing his moments of comedy with his dramatic story or character relationships. When our introduction to Morgan involves a silent comedic bit in which he steals Angus's lunch simply because he can (Angus won't remember anyway), it's tough to then buy into how protective and loyal he is to his disabled friend. A climactic revelation regarding their relationship also misses the mark. It intends to be a gasp-inducing moment, but it can be seen coming from miles away.
But textual issues aside, Hyde Park's cast is extraordinary. As Miles, a traveling actor who inquisitively follows Angus and Morgan in an attempt to better understand farmers (method acting at its finest), Jon Cook gives a grounded performance. His interest in the pair, particularly with Angus and his mental capacity, is genuine and authentic. There is a reason why Cook is one of the most sought after young actors in Austin, and it's because he's capable of work this good. Michael Stuart, reprising his award-winning turn as Angus, is absolutely outstanding. He knows how to get a laugh out of his disabled character without getting us to laugh at him. Angus may be different, but he's still dignified. Stuart captures that dignity and also puts the character's heart and innocence on display. It's a performance that's simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking. Ken Webster, who also directs, gives a strong performance as Morgan. In the comedic moments, Webster capitalizes on his penchant for stern, dry, deadpan line delivery, and in the dramatic moments, there is a fire that bursts out of him, though his moments of tenderness with Stuart could be even more defined.
Though The Drawer Boy has a few textual problems, Hyde Park's revival of it is nearly redeemed by its fantastic cast. Seeing a trio of actors this strong is always a pleasure.
THE DRAWER BOY plays Hyde Park Theatre at 511 West 43rd Street, Austin 78751 now thru April 26th. Performances are Thursdays - Saturday at 8pm with an additional performance on Sunday, April 20th at 2pm. Tickets are $18-$22. For tickets and information, please visit www.hydeparktheatre.org