Play examines brothers’ memories of fact and fiction

Heidi Wicks
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It’s 1973. Fresh-faced, cosmopolitan actor Miles (Brad Bonnell) from Toronto visits a farm run by two middle-aged brothers in southern Ontario to research a play he’s writing about farm life.

In “The Drawer Boy” Morgan (Steve O’Connell) is seemingly “the rock.” He makes sure the cows get milked and the rocks get washed while his simple-minded younger brother Angus (Bruce Brenton) keeps everything hunky dory with spoonfuls of medicine and freshly made sandwiches.

The brothers are war veterans, and Angus was hit in the head with a door during the London blitz, leaving him with steel plates in his skull and no short-term memory. Miles acts as the audience representation, and as he peels back the hot, twisted layers of the brothers’ past, we are right along with him for the ride.

Gripping monologue

About halfway through the first act, Morgan performs a haunting monologue that grabbed me by the throat. Until this moment we think we’ve been watching a play about traditional farm life and modern theatre life butting heads.

We’ve been eavesdropping on the lives of two brothers who have fallen into a safe (if melancholy) rhythm living alone together, until a city boy comes to shake things up. Morgan seems to just walk through life’s motions in a ghost-like shell. He seems void of something.

The set is wickedly kitsch. It’s a typical 1970s kitchen, and each scene fades in and out to the soundtrack of kooky kitschy radio ads of the day (Life Brand Cereal, Oscar Meyer Weiners, Meow Mix, etc.) that no doubt will be worked into a few Mad Men episodes in the near future. But until Don Draper warps our sense of nostalgia for these little ditties, hearing these old jingles transports us into a world of innocence, yet (as we come to discover) loss of innocence, all in one.

All three performances are solid.

O’Connell (Republic of Doyle) is stoic, severe, tortured yet suppressed. 

Brenton is innocent, anxious, playful yet unsettled.

Bonnell’s Miles character is eager and confident, only to get a crude awakening. Miles is wide-eyed like Bambi, and he’s about to see his mother get shot.

The script has warm and frigid visuals.

As the actors recite passages (O’Connell, in particular), we see the scene playing out in vivid detail. As Morgan recalls his memories, we’re sharing those visions from his past.

Little details in the writing make the words spring to life — like two raspberry pails sitting between the two wives (yes, there are wives). I’m not usually a fan of two-act plays. If the first act is good (which in this case, it was), I’m always irritated when the story is interrupted.

I did find the flow cracked a little when the halfway mark arrived (even the ham sandwiches in the hallway couldn’t keep my mind off the story). It took me a while to get back into things once Act 2 got underway. But this play is rich in language, character development and story.

Thematically there’s lots to digest (so there was no room for ham sandwiches anyway) — the power of friendship and brotherhood, the fine line between fact and fiction (and how maybe life is really just a series of performances).

There’s the question of how much writers do and don’t manipulate when using creative licence. And how many of our memories come from what people have told us versus what we actually remember? And how much do we owe theatre and film and literature for maintaining our stories and for giving them new meaning?

So, it was lovely to curl up in the oh-so-cosy Basement Theatre for a couple hours, and then walk outside into a real life snow globe. Snowmageddon should be wrapped up by tonight people, so fill up a thermos with hot chocolate and mosey on down to the Arts and Culture Centre to exercise your brains.

Directed by Danielle Irvine, Michael Healey’s “The Drawer Boy” continues its run in the Basement Theatre of the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre, closing with a 2 p.m. Sunday matinee.

The curtain rises at 8 p.m. for the other shows.

Admission is $22 (students $10).

Organizations: Basement Theatre

Geographic location: Toronto, Southern Ontario, London

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