Secrets buried on the farm

A Toronto actor moves onto a Southern Ontario farm and begins picking at threads that could unravel two farmers’ lives, in Ignition Theatre’s season opening play, The Drawer Boy.

From the left

A Toronto actor moves onto a Southern Ontario farm and begins picking at threads that could unravel two farmers’ lives, in Ignition Theatre’s season opening play, The Drawer Boy.

The award-winning play by Michael Healey has a fictional plot, but it’s based on a real-life Canadian experiment. In 1972, a group of idealistic actors from Toronto moved in with farmers in the Clinton-area in order to “research” their lives, and turn them into a piece of collectively written theatre called The Farm Show.

Healey’s play centres on one such fictional actor, named Miles, who bunks in with aging farmers Angus and Morgan in order to understand what it really means to live a rural life.

The farmers, at first, are bemused by this big-city person, who doesn’t have a clue about farming.

But unbeknownst to Miles, the two bachelors share a precarious reality.

They have only achieved a reassuring balance in their lives through a story that Morgan, the tough-minded and stubborn farmer, repeats to Angus, who’s lost his short-term memory during the bombing of London in the Second World War.

In the process of turning the two farmers’ stories into theatre, Miles inadvertently reveals a secret that alters the lives of all three.

This play has won a Governor General’s Literary Award for English-language drama, as well as Chalmers and Dora Mavor Moore Awards, and has become a cross-country hit since premiering in 1999.

Ignition Theatre’s artistic director Matt Grue believes The Drawer Boy is so beloved by audiences because it works on multiple levels. “There’s nothing simple in this play,” which explores the power of storytelling, he said.

“Things that you can take for granted actually carry a lot of weight.”

For instance, the first act can be appreciated for its comic “zingers” about the culture clash between rural and urban folks. But Grue said he had to re-read the play’s beginning after becoming “overwhelmed” by the complexity and emotion of the second act, which looks at what can happen when the line between truth and fiction is blurred.

The Drawer Boy deals intelligently with the idea that some people have conflicted realities or even a tenuous hold on reality.

At one point, Miles, not recognizing Angus’s sensitive and delicate past, begins pointedly questioning the vulnerable farmer when Morgan isn’t there to protect him. Grue believes this brings up the question of whether writers can ever borrow from other people’s experiences without exploiting them.

And can anyone truly be only an observer? Once Miles inserts himself into two other people’s lives, isn’t he bound to alter their course?

“This play is powerful, devastating, heart-breaking and hopeful,” said Grue.

While it doesn’t end sentimentally, Grue believes it finishes on a up note. “It doesn’t say, ‘This is the end,’ but the end is more like a beginning.”

Grue said he couldn’t stage The Drawer Boy without the right actors, and feels he achieved a great mix with John Treleaven as Morgan, Paul Boultbee as Angus and Joel Crichton as Miles.

The actors’ challenge was to create fully dimensional characters out of what might, at first glance, seem like stereotypes, he said.

Angus, for example, could be played like Dustin Hoffman’s Rain Man character because of his memory loss. Miles could be portrayed like a pompous Toronto actor, since he actually utters some pretentious lines. And Morgan could be the gruff, unshaven, meat-and potatoes farmer he initially seems to be.

But all three characters are much deeper than they first appear — which for Grue has been part of the thrill of staging this production, which moves from hilarity to something more complex and tender.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve been this excited about putting on a play,” he said. “ I’m especially proud to put this one in front of an audience. It’ll be a genuinely good evening of theatre.”

lmichelin@bprda.wpengine.com

Who: Ignition Theatre presents: The Drawer Boy, by Michael Healey

When: 7:30 p.m., Oct. 22 to 24, Oct. 27 to 31

Where: The Matchbox, Red Deer

Tickets: $22 ($18 students, seniors) from Ticketmaster

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