The Drawer Boy
Steppenwolf Theatre Company
By Kelly Kleiman
Authority is a mysterious thing.
The meaning of the word changes with its context but always implies the power to command attention and belief. It's a rare quality that's no less rare in actors. Morgan Freeman has it: as soon as he appears on-screen we know everything's going to be all right, or at least addressed by a man whose integrity is a given. John Mahoney has it too. He walks onstage and we're immediately in the presence of someone real, someone whose humanity, however complex or duplicitous, can't be doubted.
It's this particular gift--not his wonderful takes, not his ability to be explosive or still, not his physical grace--that makes Mahoney so perfect for Steppenwolf's The Drawer Boy, because authority is the subject of Michael Healey's play. Who decides what's best for others as well as for himself? And whose explanation of those decisions will be believed? Director Anna D. Shapiro draws attention to the theme even before the lights go up with a telling preshow snippet of early Neil Young: "I was thinking about what a friend had said, I was hoping it was a lie."
The plot is slightly contrived. Two bachelors live together undisturbed on a farm in 1970s Canada until Miles, a young actor-playwright, arrives on their doorstep asking to move in and observe them for the play he wants to write. (That would be the "play written about playwrights" variation on the standard stranger-comes-to-town story. I know there are only seven plots in the world, but it's not necessary to tattoo the number on the play's forehead.) The audience learns along with the young Miles (Johnny Galecki) that Angus (Frank Galati) lost his memory in an accident in World War II: he can recall some of the past but can't remember from minute to minute what he's heard or done or who he's met. He's cared for by Morgan (Mahoney), who manages the farm, assigns Angus simple tasks, and distracts him when he gets upset. (An amnesiac is also at the center of the new film Memento. Refracting life through the eyes of those who've lost their memories must say something troubling about contemporary society, but as Edward Albee so sagely remarked, I'm not drunk enough to figure out what it is.)
Angus is also an idiot savant about numbers (Rain Man) and wants to hear the same story over and over again (Of Mice and Men). The story Morgan tells him is the story of their lives: they were boyhood friends who enlisted together, served in England, and met two women, girlfriends who agreed to marry them even after Angus's injury. The couples had a double wedding and lived together in a house Angus designed ("the drawer boy" is an awkward locution for "boy who draws"). Then both women were killed in an automobile accident.
Overhearing the story, Miles appropriates it for his play. Authority issue number one: Does Miles have the right to use the story? Morgan objects, but Angus is thrilled at hearing his tale onstage--and after all it's his story too. The experience prompts a partial revival of Angus's memory, raising authority issue number two: How should Morgan deal with his friend's newfound ability to challenge him? Angus can now refuse Morgan's requests, express doubts, contribute independent memories. One line begins to recur, as each of the three says to the others, "I'm the man who did this." That is, I'm the author of this action, and of its consequences.
The central question in The Drawer Boy is who gets to decide what happened, and what will happen. The answer is almost tautological: the storyteller. The person who says how things are, or were, is the one in control of how they will be. At the end of the first act, as Angus regains his memory, Morgan's rejoicing is muted. He wants the best for his friend, but he recognizes and regrets his own loss of authority. Mahoney's face conveys this so clearly that the words of another 70s song leaped to mind: "Something's lost, but something's gained in living every day." (The play may begin and end with Neil Young, but Joni Mitchell gets her say too.)
The shift in power just before intermission makes it possible to admire Galati's ability to inhabit a character truthfully and completely, a talent as breathtaking in its way as Mahoney's. Galati's listening is particularly amazing. As Miles recounts the plot of Hamlet (another narrative about challenging or refusing authority), Galati's Angus responds with the freshness of someone who's never heard the story before, splendidly delivering his response to the information that Polonius was stabbed through the arras: "Through the arras, ouch!"
Unfortunately, the actors' authority is apparent partly because the playwright's is insufficient. Healey's setup takes too long and replaces explorations of character with detours into abstractions: the city boy learning farm life, the affectations of theater people. Miles pays the biggest price for the play's weakness. Though Galecki is a capable actor, in the second act he's stuck with lines like "Don't you even care?" as well as self-revelation arising from nowhere: "Don't you understand? I'm an actor--I play at things." The dramatic reversals are intriguing but try our patience with their slow pace. Less of The Drawer Boy would definitely be more.
Fortunately Shapiro and her actors focus on the play's worthy subject--who gets responsibility and who assigns it, who determines what's true and for what purposes. And the director's authority is everywhere apparent, from her subtle management of key bits of stage business to the more important task of conveying the closeness of the two older men, something she accomplishes so ably that it's a shock to learn they're not brothers.
The play could be better, but the production could not.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.