Report on The Drawer Boy at Hubbard Hall’s Freight Depot Theatre, Cambridge, New York
by Gail Burns and Larry Murray
Now on at the Hubbard Hall Freight Depot in Cambridge, New York. It will be performed January 11-20.
Larry Murray: Sitting in on the dress rehearsal for Hubbard Hall’s The Drawer Boy in Cambridge, New York last night was a real treat. First off, I suppose we should point out that the title refers to a person who draws, and is therefore pronounced draw-er and that the “boy” in question is no longer a boy.
The author uses the title as a metaphor for the healing power of art. But I am getting ahead of myself. It is important to put this wonderful tale in context: it actually has a lot to do with our part of the world.
One of the wonderful things about living where Massachusetts, New York and Vermont intersect is that we have farmers all around us. I have met dozens at the farmers market, and while making purchases at small scale operations like the raw milk provider Cricket Creek Farm in Williamstown, the veggie paradise Clear Brook Farm in Shaftsbury, VT, and the Lewis Waite Farm in Greenwich, NY which raises grass fed beef and apple fed pork. I love the connection we all have to the earth in these parts, don’t you? Local food operations are a lot like local theatre operations, they are all small scale, hands-on enterprises.
Gail Burns: I certainly do, but the emergence of CSAs and the resurgence of local farms is very, very recent. The non-GMO, organic, Know-Your-Farmer locally grown food movement is “hot” now, but it certainly wasn’t in 1972, the year in which this play is set. At that point North Americans were just beginning to understand that not all the food in the supermarket came from a local family farm, and the word “organic” had just entered our vocabulary as consumers.
Larry: The affinity I feel for the farmers who have persevered came bubbling to the surface last night. It seems the two long-time Canadian farmers in Michael Healey’s play have stuck it for more than thirty years, and despite a serious war injury to Angus (Philip Kerr), his wartime comrade Morgan (Benjie White) has stuck by him for all those years, even after their lady friends/wives had departed the scene. At its heart this is a play about simply being human, and all the complex and interwoven threads that flows from this.
Gail: 1972 was also the year in which members of the Toronto-based collective Theatre Passe Muraille went into the farming community in Clinton, Ontario, and lived/worked with the locals to create “The Farm Show.” That process, the resulting performances, and their lasting impact on both the farmers and theatre professionals involved were Healey’s inspiration for The Drawer Boy in which the power of telling, reteling, hearing and rehearing stories is central. Healey used the experience of one of the Passe Muraille actors, Miles Potter, as the genesis for his play, and the character of the young actor bears his name, but The Drawer Boy is not about Miles (Jason Dolmetsch) or the play his troupe is creating. It is about storytelling, and the stories in question are the ones that Morgan and Angus live every day.
Larry: The two are surprised when Miles arrives on their doorstep to ask if he can observe the workings of the farm as research for a play he is involved with.
Gail: All of the play’s humor springs from Miles’ incredible naïveté and ignorance of rural life and manual labor. Cambridge, NY, and the Washington County area has always had a solid agricultural base to its economy, which is why this play was a wise pick for the Theatre Company at Hubbard Hall (TCHH) and will be especially well appreciated by the Hubbard Hall audience.
Larry: Dolmetsch’s resume is growing fast with his opera productions we have enjoyed from the Hubbard Hall Opera Theater (HHOT), including the candlelight La Boheme we saw this fall at Old First Church in Bennington, VT.
Gail: This is his debut directing a non-musical work, and he has done a fine job with White and Kerr, both of whom give astonishing and touching performances, but he is least effective when directing himself – which is a tricky business. There were a couple of times I felt that Miles was awkwardly placed or even in the way on stage, and I realized that was because Dolmetsch had never seen himself in the scene.
Larry: Dolmetsch reminds me of the late, great John Dexter who was as adept at directing theatre (M. Butterfly, Equus, Threepenny Opera) as he was grand opera. He was Director of Production at the Metropolitan Opera from 1974-81, and his work still glows in my memory.
I liked his acting, understated as it was, but it has to be difficult to get fully into a role when you are also responsible for the staging. It is very selfless and workmanlike, and he keeps the lion’s share of attention on White and Kerr, whose relationship on stage was so convincing that it is almost impossible to say one was superior to the other – they both excelled. Another fun element in this production is that the boots and flannels they used could easily have been worn earlier in the day to milk the cows or fix a fence.
Gail: I am constantly impressed and excited by the work Dolmetsch and his wife. Alexina Jones, the Artistic Director of HHOT, are doing at Hubbard Hall and now expanding out into the region. This young couple is making opera and theatre on a scale that is simultaneously professional and accessible. I love it!
Larry: The Drawer Boy is said to be one of the best plays to ever come out of Canada, and I tend to agree, don’t you? It is, at its core, a story with a lot of heart and a few secrets, both of which are revealed to us slowly as the tale unfolds. And all those little twists and turns, not the least of which is the reaction of Angus to seeing the play about the farm on stage. How much should we reveal here?
Gail: I saw and reviewed another excellent production of this play at StageWorks when they were still performing at the North Pointe facility in Kinderhook, NY in 2003, so I was not surprised by the secrets and revelations – and I realized how key they are to full enjoyment of this show, so no spoilers here!
But apparently one thing that inspired Healey to write this play in 1999, a quarter of a century after The Farm Show was created, was the fact that hearing their stories and having them retold on stage over the years was contining to have a profound impact on the community in Clinton. Our stories – personal or communal – shape who we are. Judaism is the ultimate example of a community defined by its stories.
Larry: The intimacy of the Freight Depot playing space brought the action close enough so that the audience is brought into the kitchen and front yard of the farmhouse.
Gail: I love the Freight Depot space, which is used as both a gallery and a theatre by Hubbard Hall Projects. I HATE how damned hard it is to find and to get to, especially in the winter. I have been kvetching about this for three years now and I am really surprised that Hubbard Hall hasn’t addressed the issues of directional signage and a fully shoveled and illuminated pathway to the theatre. If you have never been there before – good luck!
Larry: Perhaps they will get some ice melt and sand out there before the performances begin. After all, The Drawer Boy is opening this weekend, and plays only from January 11-20 on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 and Sundays at 2:00 and you don’t want to deter potential ticket buyers. For those who make the effort, they will be rewarded with about the happiest meshing of the arts and agriculture I have ever seen, one so well done that even city slickers like us got a great lift from it. It is worth a special trip to Cambridge, New York (about 45 minutes from the northern part of the Berkshires, slightly over 1.25 hours from Pittsfield) to see it.
Tickets and reservations can be made by calling 518-677-2495 or going to www.hubbardhall.org
More about Theatre Pass Muraille
A portion of the published script for “The Farm Show” (link)
The Stolen Poem
The poem Angus recites in Act III is “At the Wedding March” by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1879).
GOD with honour hang your head,
Groom, and grace you, bride, your bed
With lissome scions, sweet scions,
Out of hallowed bodies bred.
Each be other’s comfort kind:
Déep, déeper than divined,
Divine charity, dear charity,
Fast you ever, fast bind.
Then let the March tread our ears:
I to him turn with tears
Who to wedlock, his wonder wedlock,
Déals tríumph and immortal years.
Note: “The Wedding March,” which is actually incidental music from Felix Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, was first played as a recessional at the wedding of the English Princess Royal in 1858.