Storytelling as a Survival Skill
With the exception of the works of William Shakespeare, the three most frequently produced plays of the past decade by American regional theaters have been David Auburn’s Proof, John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, and Yasmina Reza’s Art. Besides having small casts and minimal production values, these works share the theme of the complexity of human relationships and the consequent struggle for control and self-definition in a contemporary world where the traditional verities of love, loyalty, and friendship no longer seem to hold sway. Furthermore, what lies at the heart of the plots of all of these plays is an awareness of the often impossibly thin line that separates reality and fiction.
For a three-week run beginning on October 15, 2010, Theaterwork opens its fifteenth season in Santa Fe with the fourth most-produced play of this period, Michael Healey’s The Drawer Boy (DB), a three-character play set north of the border in rural Canada. A young actor(Miles) receives permission from two middle-age farmers and life-long friends (Morgan and Angus) to observe and take notes for a project that will lead to the creation of a play based on the their real-life rural experiences. Gradually, Miles becomes enmeshed in the older men’s work and lives to both comic and life-defining ends. Frequently compared to John Steinbeck’s George and Lenny (from his Of Mice and Men), Morgan is the laconic leader and Angus is his enthusiastic acolyte who has no short term memory. The play is full of surprise and insight as it burrows into the essential meanings of such terms as “love,” “friendship,” “forgiveness,” and “compassion.”
Based on the1972 work The Farm Show whose real-life composition mirrors Miles’s work within Healey’s play, the playwright has created the most-decorated Canadian play of the new millennium that is also a companion piece to the past decade’s other highly praised and produced works. DB focuses on the art of living in the world and the transformative power of the stories we create and by which we live. Miles’s retelling of the plot of Hamlet in simple contemporary language to the rapt Angus is a microcosm of the necessity of storytelling to help weather the everyday banalities and vicissitudes of existence.
On September 15, 2010, in a telephone interview, I discussed with Artistic Director David Olson Theaterwork’s upcoming production of The Drawer Boy. We began our conversation about the play by focusing on its Canadian-nature: “The author [Michael Healey] allows the characters to be inarticulate. He also understands the value of the unspoken. In DB, all the characters are individualized and do not speak in the same heightened authorial voice…. [Furthermore], Canadians live in wide-open spaces, often isolated from others and their lives are often deeply embedded in the physical world and in the cycles of the seasons with their recurring pattern of death and regeneration. There is great drama [in these small lives] from which we all can learn.”
As a Canadian playwright, Healey reflects his countrymen’s attitudes toward life and love: “Healey writes with unity and clarity but not a sense of easiness. Such writing takes tremendous mastery. DB has no firm, bold lines drawn. Healey does not need a villain and the play has no winners and losers [in the usual sense of these terms]….And while no one would hold up the characters’ lives on the farm as an ideal one, the play is a delicate and lovely expression of love and loyalty that doesn’t explain things as divine but references such devotion to human existence alone.”
When an audience “draws in close and is attentive to the lives of the characters in DB,” it experiences unexpected discoveries about how lives are created, defined, and lived. For example, the characters embody those necessary qualities of the ideal artist: Morgan with his sense of humor and detachment, Angus with his openness and vulnerability to experience, and Miles with his deep-seated empathy and compassion.
A key metaphor for DB that reflects both the seasonal cycles of farming and parallels human life as expressed in the play itself is the “unlocking of the land.” We have lost the sense of the rhythms and lessons of an agrarian existence: “Pop culture takes us away from the land and to the urban. We have lost the experience of the changes of season and the sense of place. [Our closest brush with nature] may be fighting for that organic tomato in WHOLE FOODS. We have forgotten that farmers need great stamina, perseverance, and knowledge. When we [the Olson family] lived in Minnesota, we took our work to many small towns where we were profoundly affected by the people. While I have benefited greatly by being a part of the educated elite, I also find that there is something isolating about it. [People have lost such virtues] as the generosity of the local farm wives to bachelor farmers such as Morgan and Angus is a reality [to this day.]”
The structure of the play is based on a “very established life that stretches from boyhood to war to thirty years of shared farming that is stirred up by a chance encounter. Naïve and enthusiastic Miles enters Morgan’s and Angus’s world with a fresh pair of eyes and a new set of questions that eventually lead to a set of unforeseen revelations.” In this way, one’s stories are “unlocked” and new possibilities are suggested.
As one comes to expect, Theaterwork’s production of DB is detailed, nuanced, and thoughtful. David Olson has employed company member Richard Gonzales who works with brain-damaged individuals to act as a consultant to help with understanding the character of Angus: [David paraphrasing Richard] “The brain is always seeking light. The brain seeks to make connections and reconnections; it wants restoration; it finds pathways. [Also,] each brain is utterly unique. [Frequently,] a patient will repeat a gesture that someone else has taught them. [Finally,] a person suffering from brain damage will have new patterns of behavior and response though his awakening may only be partial.” David also spent some time tracking down the composer of the incidental music for the original Oregon production, Doug Clark, only to find him next door in Chimayo. He is currently working with this production of DB.
In creating the design elements for this production of DB, David Olson finds that the play is “extremely intimate. In this play, the house is there only to keep the wind off. The action--the baking of bread and the making of sandwiches, for example—occurs with the characters next to one another. They are so connected, the play is between them….[The challenge as a designer] is to create a sense of place in DB, but not to make the place the story.” As a result, DB will be performed in the company’s chamber configuration of 90 seats on the stage of the James A. Little Theater.
David is attracted to the play’s tenet that “the physical facts of existence become one’s life. I find the agrarianism and [the implied assertions of] ‘I am what I do’ and ‘Don’t ask me to explain what I do’ to be very stimulating….DB is a gentle, passionate, compassionate, and humorous take on characters who do not possess heroic qualities [other than mutual devotion].” DB proves that there is a type of heroism in staying at home and living a life defined by work and one’s most intimate relationships. The stories we tell ourselves and the world are what form the parameters of our lives—and what help us survive and thrive.
Theaterwork will produce Michael Healey’s The Drawer Boy for seven performances on October 15-16 & 21-23 at 7:30 P.M. and on October 17 & 24 at 2 P.M. in the James A. Little Theater on the Campus of the New Mexico School for the Deaf on Cerrillos Road.
Tickets are $15 for general admission and $10 for students.
Tickets may be reserved by phoning (505) 471-1799 or going online to www.theaterwork.org.
Photos by Petr Jerabek of (www.lightimagination.net).