Sunday, February 15, 2004

'Drawer' keeps audience thinking

Theater review

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

William McNulty (left), John Thomas Waite and Brian Ibsen star in The Drawer Boy at Playhouse in the Park.
Actors Theatre/HARLAN TAYLOR

The instant you look at Playhouse in the Park's Shelterhouse stage, you know that The Drawer Boy is going to be an off-kilter tale. The setting is a kitchen in an Ontario farmhouse, so old that it sports that less efficient ancestor of the refrigerator, an icebox. But the "room" is askew, resting at odd angles to itself.

It's a perfect physical representation of this quietly effective drama by Michael Healey, interested in how we rub along together, in hard truths and happier fictions, and is thoroughly, idealistically persuaded that theatre can change lives.

The first time we meet Angus (John Thomas Waite), he's staring at a blank wall. His features half-hidden underneath a mop of gray hair and beard, Angus is something of a blank, too.

Drawer Boy is set in 1972, and 30 years before its action takes place, Angus was caught in a London air raid, sustained a head injury and has lost his ability to remember. (That "loss" is pertinent because it turns out that what is lost can be reclaimed, but that comes later.)

Angus lives with gruff Morgan (William McNulty). They were children together, they served together, they've been together ever since in a sort of cocoon ... until the day an actor wanders into their lives.

Miles (Brian Ibsen) is with a troupe fashioning a script about farm life by interviewing the people who live on the land. He is also a hopelessly na‘ve city boy who makes his first mistake when he accidentally runs Morgan over with a tractor, doing no permanent damage, except to his temper.

Healey gleefully pokes fun at us urban bumpkins as Morgan gets his ironic revenge, persuading Miles (with a perfectly straight face) that cows have intellects, that gravel needs to be washed clean, and that crop rotation isn't what we thought it was.

All the while, Healey purposefully keeps us alert to deeper meanings by continually striking an off note. Why does Angus count stars? What is he clearly, if unsuccessfully, searching for in the kitchen? (Of course, Angus can't guess the answer any more than we can.)

A big clue is the opaque title. As a carefree, pre-WWII young man, Angus was an artist - a draw-er.

Puppy-eager Miles (perfectly costumed from jeans to '70s polyester) wants to help, and his clumsy goodwill sets off the unraveling of long-kept secrets, offering an intriguing consideration of the bonds of friendship and responsibility.

This is a capable production, and director Michael Haney coaxes Waite along in a big acting role - there's nothing like maintaining a perpetual state of discovery (Where did that sandwich come from? Who is this stranger?) throughout a drama, especially as the discoveries become life shattering.

A challenge of Drawer Boy is that there's an emotional disconnect among the characters. Angus is emotionally caught in amber, Morgan is comfortable with his demons and Miles is a stranger in a strange land. They don't connect in any easy way.

Ibsen makes Miles the kind of guy you want to take aside and explain life to, but even though Drawer Boy is coming off a run at Actors Theatre of Louisville, there's a vital energy missing in his scenes with Morgan. That could be because McNulty is actor-ly - he never convinces me his kitchen is on a farm, not a stage.

Like One, which opened the Shelterhouse season, Drawer Boy is a thinking person's date night. And there's nothing wrong with that.

The Drawer Boy, through March 7, Playhouse in the Park Shelterhouse. 421-3888.


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