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Theatre review: The Drawer Boy

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Here's a play that seems right at home in Vermont: With a cast of characters that includes two farmers and an actor, The Drawer Boy resonates with both the agricultural and the artistic tendencies of our state. Interestingly, the most frequently produced play in America is set in rural Canada. Toronto playwright Michael Healey made sure of that.

In addition to the play's humor and poignancy, there's a practical explanation for its current popularity. Minimal stage requirements --three actors in a 1970s farmhouse --make it ideal for a small theater company on a tight budget. In this production, Vermont Stage confirms that a good story doesn't need special effects.

This one wastes no time getting started. There's a brief introduction to the two farmers: in a plaid shirt, graying Angus (Bob Nuner) is making a ham sandwich; Morgan (David Sitler) enters in navy coveralls, takes the sandwich and exits. Without batting an eye, Angus makes a new sandwich. Morgan appears and takes this one, too. This promptly established dynamic -- Angus seems content to make sandwiches all day -- is disrupted when Miles the actor enters.

Played by Paul J. Susi, Miles is a bright-eyed young man from Toronto. His theater company is writing a play about farmers, and he's looking to do some research -- observe Angus and Morgan at their work, even help out on the farm. "I'd better ask Morgan," Angus says.

Morgan agrees that Miles can stick around, so long as he makes himself useful. But when Miles tries driving the tractor, he runs into Morgan -- dramatized through sound effects and lines heard from offstage. So Morgan gives him less glorious chores, such as washing stones and going through cow manure with a fork, salvaging undigested corn to feed to the chickens. All the while, he takes notes in a pocket-sized spiral notepad.

Eventually those notes prove useful, as material that Miles supplies his fellow thespians at rehearsals. His first contribution is an absurd performance-art sketch of Daisy the cow fretting over whether she's producing enough milk to avoid slaughter. But as Miles comes to know the farmers better -- even to discover some of their secrets -- his stories about them mature.

Chief among them is how Angus lost his short-term memory during an air raid in World War II London. Throughout the first act of The Drawer Boy, Angus lives more or less only in the present. Miles has to reintroduce himself each day.

The play's dry humor is winning from the start. When Miles tries to explain his mission to Angus, the farmer responds in a north-country drawl, "You want to watch us do what?" Later, Morgan explains to Miles that the beef tastes like ham because they feed the pigs to the cows.

Though at times almost farcical, The Drawer Boy also has its serious moments. The play speaks to the vulnerability of farming in general and of these men in particular. "Produce or die," Morgan says, describing his own situation and that of his cows. Whenever Angus smells burnt toast -- purportedly a warning sign of a stroke -- Morgan has to usher Angus to his room for a nap.

The three actors work well together, and the contrast between their characters contributes to the play's charm. Susi's Miles, the city boy, is all innocent naïvete, at least in the beginning. Nuner's Angus is a dreamer, always counting the stars and asking Morgan to recall their shared adventures in love and war. Sitler's Morgan is wry, practical and capable, but he tells Angus these stories with practiced ease, savoring every word.

Last week, during a fast-paced scene with all three actors, the timing was a bit off --understandable, considering Sitler had only a few rehearsals with the rest of the cast. When the actor originally cast as Morgan had to back out because of an injury, director Mark Nash promptly found Sitler, who arrived in Burlington just two days before opening night last Wednesday. He had played the role before. These actors and Nash -- also artistic director of VSC -- have done an impressive job of coping with last-minute exigencies; the magic of theater triumphs over practical considerations once again.

Of course, the actors and director weren't alone in this production; the designers also helped set the mood. Jeff Modereger's set meets the challenge of theater-in-the-round: to make the stage interesting but keep the actors visible to the audience. All the necessary elements are there -- an oven, a refrigerator, a door to the upstairs --but out of the audience's line of sight. Costume designer Jenny Fulton's plaid shirts and coveralls enhance the rural theme, while Miles, dressed in impractical shorts

and a T-shirt, stands apart.

Miles gets picked on the most in this play -- if he's a stand-in for Healey, it's an odd act of self-deprecation. In the tradition of "the play within a play," The Drawer Boy is self-conscious. The meaning of such theatricality in Hamlet has been endlessly rehashed in academic circles, but here the significance of Miles' character -- beyond an opportunity for plenty of good jokes -- is left to the audience to decide.

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