THE DRAWER BOY by Michael Healey, directed by Ruth Madoc-Jones (Theatre Passe Muraille, 16 Ryerson). In previews Tuesday (October 23), opens October 26. Pwyc-$35. 416-504-7529. Rating: NNNNN
What's it like stepping into a Canadian classic, one?s that?s not even a decade old?
It's not so intimidating for young actor Frank Cox-O'Connell. He plays, well, a young actor in The Drawer Boy, Michael Healey's award-winning 1999 script inspired by The Farm Show, a history-making 70s collective production created by Theatre Passe Muraille in rural Clinton, Ontario.
A few years ago, The Drawer Boy was the most-produced play in North American regional theatres.
Healey creates a fictional episode in which Miles (Cox-O'Connell) works with and observes two older farmers, Angus and Morgan, taking their story as raw material for his dramatic presentation. In the process, he learns something about farming, the healing nature of storytelling and the power of theatre.
"He's a really curious, well-meaning, very on-task, high-strung kid, like me," laughs Cox-O'Connell. "Well, maybe a little higher strung.
"He's a source of comedy, since there's something funny about watching someone squirm. But I'm avoiding making Miles too clownish. It's more effective to play him as an average dude, a compassionate, urban guy who thinks he knows a lot but knows nothing about driving a tractor."
In other words, Miles reflects the audience back to itself.
Cox-O'Connell saw a production of the play in Montreal when he studied at the National Theatre School. But he doesn't remember many specifics.
"And I've avoided learning anything about the original production here at Passe Muraille, for fear of getting caught in how the actors did it then. Because the writing is so good, it seems at first there are few options available to how we play it. But we're looking for choices that aren't the most obvious, especially with the comedy."
A member of One Reed Theatre, the performer draws here on that collective company's dedication to telling a large story while focusing on the truthfulness of small, individual moments.
And he's noticing the difference of being in a cast that's a decade or so younger than the original's.
"That younger quality makes sense given the events of the play," notes Cox-O'Connell. "It makes Morgan and Angus's sometimes tragic story more poignant; they're still-virile men who have lost chances in their lives.
"It also makes the play's danger, when things go wrong, more real. Miles could really get hurt, since there's nothing keeping a fistfight from breaking out between a couple of alpha males. As a result, the play becomes both funnier and scarier at the same time."