Watermark Theatre, North Rustico – August 12, 2022
Watermark Theatre artistic director Robert Tsonos is clearly having fun. Doing the pre-show introductory spiel at the Watermark premiere of The Drawer Boy (directed by Rebecca Parent), Tsonos beams as he speaks of his love for this 1999 play, and how changing the Watermark’s mandate in 2021 to include modern works meant he could finally stage it here. His heartfelt intro starts the night off on a promising note, and what follows largely lives up to it.
Much of that payoff comes from the script, inspired by real-life events of 1972 when Theatre Passe Muraille sent actors on a research expedition into rural southern Ontario, accumulating stories and experiences that formed the basis for their groundbreaking theatre event, The Farm Show. Over two decades later, Blyth Festival actor Michael Healey met some of the locals who participated in that show and wrote a fictional tale based on it, The Drawer Boy, now one of Canada’s most popular and respected plays.
Rahul Gandhi stars as Miles, a naïve young Toronto actor sent to rural Ontario during that 1972 project, rooming at a farm run by two elderly bachelors and lifelong friends: cynical curmudgeon Morgan (played by Paul Rainville) and the brain-damaged, childlike, memory-challenged math savant Angus (Wally MacKinnon). While doing the most unpleasant or arbitrarily contrived chores the oft-disdainful Morgan can assign him, Miles soaks up farm culture plus details of the two farmers’ personal lives. When he folds those details into his theatrical project, it impacts all three men in unexpected ways.
The play’s odd title references the pre-brain injury amateur architectural skills of Angus, then nicknamed “the Drawer Boy” for drawing up plans and pictures of buildings; but over the course of the play, Miles arguably becomes a new “Drawer Boy” as his theatrical version of the farmers’ lives redraws their self-perceptions, spurring Angus to rethink everything he knows—or thinks he knows.
Sounds serious, and it is—the story takes some very dark turns—but Healey’s script is also warm, wise, and frequently funny. The Morgan-Angus family unit that Miles gets tangled up with is full of real affection and abundant humour, notably Morgan’s gift for weapons grade sarcasm (played perfectly by Rainville).
Rainville’s the MVP of this cast, hitting showier notes like rage and anguish with convincing passion; but he’s best in the dry comedy bits, like his exquisitely deadpan comment on what an “emotional roller coaster” farming is. MacKinnon and Gandhi make good straight men; and like Rainville, MacKinnon nails the more intense emotional moments as well as the quieter stuff.
Gandhi’s a bit more hit-or-miss, seeming vaguely detached in occasional moments where the timing or energy of his line readings don’t quite mesh with the other components of the scene as if his lines existed in isolation, though his performance tends to feel more in-sync during heated exchanges.
Wes Babcock’s solid set design—the rough-hewn Morgan-Angus farmhouse, all weathered wood and earth tones—helps set the scene, evoking the intro from 1961 Twilight Zone episode “The Invaders”: “This is one of the out-of-the-way places… a farmhouse, handmade, crude.” That farmhouse is besieged by miniature aliens. The Drawer Boy features a friendlier, less exotic farm invader, but the results are equally dramatic in their own way, and Watermark’s deft depiction of it is anything but crude.