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Chicago Arts Scene Commentary

for the Week of May 7, 2001

Theater Review:

STEPPENWOLF THEATRE'S "THE DRAWER BOY"

BY LUCIA MAURO

Canadian playwright Michael Healey’s gracious whisper of a play, The Drawer Boy, now on the Steppenwolf mainstage, would not have struck such a moving emotional chord had exquisitely intuitive actors like Frank Galati and John Mahoney not chosen to play the leads. This quiet, humor-tinged drama about two bachelor farmers faced with reclaiming their damaged lives through truthful storytelling feels too "paint-by-numbers" to elicit the kind of wrenching response it aims to evoke.

Most structurally problematic is the well-worn device of a pampered urbanite bungling his way through the rigors of farm life. When Miles, a young actor from an experimental theater troupe in Toronto, decides to spend time baling hay and milking cows as part of his research for a play about rural Canada, he overhears a story that opens up fragile memories for these two aging farmers. Johnny Galecki injects the proper amount of wonder and sensitivity into what amounts to a paper-thin role.

Angus (Frank Galati in an almost beatific performance) suffered brain damage from shrapnel wounds during World War II, annihilating his short-term memory. He is cared for by the gruff Morgan (an imperceptibly luminous reading by John Mahoney), who must constantly remind Angus of tasks he finished only seconds earlier. Yet the burly Angus is a math wiz who loves to count the stars.

The play’s title refers to Angus’ pre-war talent for drawing blueprints. While stationed in England, the two young men planned to marry two British women and build a house back in Canada together. But Angus’ accident detonated their dreams for a happy existence.

"The Drawer Boy" raises provocative questions about the malleable nature of memory; and how the lies one may craft to appease a loved one can resurface in an irretrievably tragic manner. But, because the playwright devotes so much attention to this abstract notion of self-manufactured stories and memory, he fails to forge a convincing dramatic arc. The character of Miles is never fully integrated into these men’s lives. His touchy-feely inquiries (the play is set in 1972) and cartoonish tractor mishaps rob the play of its aching emotional eloquence.

Director Anna D. Shapiro infuses this potentially insightful but half-realized play with a transcendent sense of rhythm. Her production is well worth experiencing if only to witness Galati and Mahoney deliver performances of compelling contrapuntal force. •

"The Drawer Boy" runs through June 10 at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted. Tickets: $35-$45. Call 312-335-1650.

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