Photo by Henry DiroccoThe two best kinds of liars in the world are actors and writers. Actors always pretend to be someone else. Writers prey on people's confidences in order to divine "the truth."
Both liars are at work in Michael Healey's The Drawer Boy,receiving its Southern California premiere at South Coast Repertory. One involves Miles, an idealistic stage actor who barrels onto a southern Ontario (that's Canada, not the 909) farm in the early '70s, hoping to study a couple farm workers for a theater project he's putting together. After observing the farm's operation as closely as possible, Miles turns his experiences into a stage documentary of sorts—an oral history project that attempts to get to the truth of farming by telling a lie—i.e., staging a play.
The other lie is less obvious—to everyone in the play and the audience. It's the explanation behind the weirdly symbiotic relationship between Angus and Morgan, two lifetime friends, World War II veterans and now farmers. Angus is a kind-hearted simpleton whose short-term memory equals that of a chronic pot head's. He can't remember anything, gets terrible headaches and often smells baking bread. The only way to settle him down is for Morgan to tell Angus their life story, a greatly condensed version explaining how Angus became the way he is, and why two men live alone on a farm.
Things are great, until Miles enters the farm and it becomes obvious that Morgan has been telling his best friend a lie for many years. But rather than exploring the moral complexities of this twist—forcing Morgan to reap what he has sown for so many years—Healey lets him off too easily. The same is true with Miles. Even though he preys on these men's confidences and turns a very personal story into a public presentation, he is spared any real repercussions.
Though Healey should have probed deeper, the play is still an enjoyable, well-intentioned, simple event that, at its heart, is more about masculine loyalty than anything else.
It also receives solid, likeable performances from the three-person cast, especially Hal Landon Jr.'s Morgan and Jimmie Ray Weeks' Angus. Landon comes off as taciturn and crusty as the pitchfork-wielding farmer in American Gothic, but the delight he takes in telling small lies to the naive Miles ("the farms' beef tastes like ham because they feed the pigs to the cows who live in terror of being butchered if they don't produce enough milk") and the immense sense of fraternal protection he feels for Angus creates a fully rounded, believable character. In a lesser actor's hands, that would have come off as a caricature.
Weeks' Angus is similarly well-drawn. His vocal inflections and physical mannerisms—the constant fluttering of hands, the rubbing of his head—all point to a man who is sweetly imbalanced. By play's end, when he realizes the awful truth, the pain of his discovery is palpable.
The ability of an actor to make an audience feel something truthful in the process of telling a lie strikes at the heart of theater's central paradox, and underscores why this live medium of artifice and illusion remains so relevant and important, especially at a time when so much of the mass media—from New York Times reporters to the latest reality show craze—are all about lying. Actors given good material to work with can provoke undeniably real and honest emotions in an audience. It's a miracle of sorts and it raises the question of whether any truth is ever possible without the lie it takes to keep it honest.
The Drawer Boy on South Coast Repertory's Segerstrom stage, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. thru June 29. $27-$54.