Toronto-based playwright Michael Healey’s three-character melodrama, on display at the venerable Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, N.J., through April 3, is set in “a farmhouse in Central Ontario” in the summer of 1972.
The events that drive the plot of this Canadian “memory play,” however, took place three decades earlier, in 1942, when Angus and Morgan, who live on the failing farm and attempt to keep it afloat, were soldiers serving in England during the early days of World War II.
A tragic event on a night three decades in the play’s past crippled Angus’s mind, leaving him with two metal plates in his head, periodic headaches of blinding intensity, and very little in the way of memory.
Angus’s fogged mind required that he ask Morgan, again and again, to relate to him the grim details of the London night that changed their lives together, and that, as it happens, supplies “The Drawer Boy” with the wisp of a story it tells.
Healey’s play, which opened at Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille, won a number of significant Canadian playwriting awards, and then had runs at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company and Dublin’s Abbey Theatre.
Longtime Steppenwolf Company stalwart John Mahoney, who played Morgan in Chicago and Dublin, is repeating the role in the Paper Mill production, under the direction of Steppenwolf colleague Anna D. Shapiro.
“The Drawer Boy” comes across, at least in part, as a bit of a rewrite of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” undertaken by a writer obsessed by the somewhat dubious psychological phenomenon that has come to be known as ‘recovered memory.”
In this currently trendy “recovery” situation, a man or woman may suddenly come up with details of an incident that has languished in the uncharted regions of the distant past.
In “The Drawer Boy” the title of which refers to the befuddled Angus, the story Morgan has been feeding his damaged old partner, who had been his close friend since childhood, begins to unravel shortly after the unexpected arrival at the farm of a young man from Toronto, Miles.
The stranger identifies himself as an actor eager to study farm life in order to supply himself with details he can then use in the “writing” of a play he and the members of his theatrical troupe are putting together.
In the case of Miles, who, like the older characters in “The Drawer Boy,” is given no surname, the trouble begins when he innocently invites Angus and Morgan to witness a dress rehearsal of the play that he and his friends have cobbled together, using, among other things, the story he has overheard the latter telling the former.
Healey would have his audiences believe that, after decades of mental confusion, Angus’s consciousness snaps into place when, in the auditorium where the play is being performed, he hears Miles imitating Morgan’s voice and mannerisms and replicating the events surrounding the advent of his disability three full decades in the past.
In addition to his overall awkwardness and gaucheness, Miles is severely accident prone, so much so that it’s difficult to believe that the tough-minded and somewhat satanic Morgan would tolerate his presence around the place for two days, much less the two-week stay he had requested. The farm could use an extra hand, but Miles almost immediately proves himself to be utterly useless, except to keep Healey’s plot trudging along for the requisite two hours.
Mahoney is best known for his excellent ongoing work as the title character’s retired-cop father in the long-running television series,”Frasier.” But no stranger to the legitimate stage, the actor has undertaken, and stayed with, what might easily be described as the least convincing, certainly the least sympathetic, of the three roles in “The Drawer Boy,” alternating as he does between deceiving Angus’s clouded mind and playing cruel tricks on the gullible boy who has stumbled onto the farm.
The Paper Mill cast, in addition to Mahoney as the stolid, crafty Morgan, includes Louis Cancelmi as the na