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A Pair to Remember 

Theater Reviews: The Drawer Boy, The Light in the Piazza

The Drawer Boy

In the new world of condensed electronic communications, even the concept of lasting friendship gets its own text-message abbreviation. BFF means “best friend forever,” but the acronym carries an ironic undertone. “Forever” falls somewhere between fleeting and phony, such as when Paris Hilton searches for “My New BFF” on multiple seasons of a TV reality show. Anyone lucky enough to have a true close confidant knows that the relationship is anything but transitory. Real BFFs store and treasure a lifetime of each other’s memories, secrets and dreams.

Ontario farmers Morgan and Angus are the lifelong buddies at the center of Canadian playwright Michael Healey’s The Drawer Boy (1999). They have lived and worked together since returning from World War II. When a Toronto actor moves in to observe their rural life, he disturbs the delicate equilibrium of both farm and friendship. George Pierce directs the current, superb production at the Waterbury Festival Playhouse. Well-crafted performances accentuate the script’s humor, making the story moving where it might have been maudlin.

The play takes place in the summer of 1972. The boyhood friends, now in their fifties, have been back from the war for 30 years. During the bombing of London, Angus suffered a head injury that shattered his memory. Morgan has retaught him to do simple things, such as baking bread and making sandwiches. And, to soothe his friend, Morgan tells stories about their past, when artistic Angus was the “drawer boy” who literally sketched plans for their future.

Eager theater student Miles shows up at their door, offering free labor in exchange for instruction in farming. His theater collective is writing a play, and he wants to gather authentic material. He “helps” by accidentally backing the tractor over Morgan and asking pesky, psychoanalytic questions, such as how the cows feel about getting milked — do they find “all the touching ... traumatic?”

Initially irritated, Morgan soon has fun messing with the overly earnest, clueless city boy. He explains that the “beef spleen” sandwich tastes like ham “because we feed the pigs to the cows.” And that the cow producing the least milk each week gets slaughtered to keep “the deep freeze full.”

Miles is frustrated when his troupe cuts his contributions to the script, including his heartfelt vignettes about the cows’ emotional torment. But then he overhears Morgan retelling Angus the history of their lives together, including the two girls they met in England and brought back to Canada. The tale is poignant and painful, and Miles puts it in the play without asking permission. Seeing the events onstage has a startling effect on Angus: Flashes of memory start to return. But the pieces don’t add up, and all three men must confront the question: How much of the yarn is true?

Miles acts as both catalyst and comic relief, and Marcel Freda works brilliantly in the role. He demonstrates Miles’ vigorous commitment to his “difficult” work as an actor. For example, he practices his bovine mooing and cud chewing until he gets it just right. (The scene is a hoot.) But behind gullible eyes and a goofy demeanor, Freda shows how Miles develops compassion for the farmers and gradually transcends his place as an aggravating outsider.

Bob Carmody gives Angus affecting dignity and charm. Angus’ injury means “he can’t remember from one minute to the next,” Morgan tells Miles. Carmody’s body language reflects how this weighs on Angus. He shuffles slowly around the kitchen with disheveled hair and hunched shoulders. In the second act, however, returning fragments of memory reanimate Angus. His voice grows clearer, his gait stronger.

Morgan is witty and wise, but he struggles to conceal the exhaustion from 30 years of caring for Angus. Michael Manion conveys Morgan’s pluck and pain with spirit. His eyes gleam devilishly when he’s telling Miles tall tales, and flash with desperate concern when Angus feels distress. All three actors create convincing relationships among the characters. Manion portrays Morgan’s protectiveness of Angus with a rough grace that feels intensely realistic.

Rick Loya’s marvelous set reinforces the sense that the farmers’ lives are frozen in the 1940s. A period kitchen, where most of the action unfolds, takes up half the set; the remaining area is green space for outdoor scenes. Vintage cabinets, furniture and appliances — including a working sink! — are gently faded and scuffed to show decades of wear. The characters use Ginger Pierce’s authentic props, such as matching red containers for salt, pepper and flour, and a brightly painted bread box.

Catherine Vigne’s simple but effective costumes emphasize the cultural chasm between city houseguest and country hosts. The farmers sport practical work boots, overalls, jeans, flannel shirts and longjohns. Miles’ hippie wardrobe signifies he’s not prepared to muck manure or bale hay: lily-white sneakers, peace-sign-embellished bell-bottoms, and groovy headbands, wristbands and belts.

Healey’s play is one of the most successful in modern Canadian theater history. Its moving depiction of friendship strikes a deep chord. Healey reminds us that sometimes there is nothing more healing than the friend who has known you from the inside since you were a carefree child.

******

The Light in the Piazza

For an artist, it’s daunting to go into the family business when a famous ancestor’s shadow looms. Composer Richard Rodgers (1902-79) is the granddaddy of the American musical; he and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II gave us classics such as South Pacific, Oklahoma! and The King and I. Rodgers was also the real-life grandfather of Adam Guettel, who wrote both music and lyrics for The Light in the Piazza (2003).

In a 2003 New York Times interview, Guettel suggested that he understood the essence of his grandpa’s gift. He noted that “a simple song,” such as “Do-Re-Mi” from The Sound of Music, “will never be forgotten.”

Too bad that’s exactly what Guettel himself forgot to provide in Piazza: straightforward, memorable tunes. The Stowe Theatre Guild’s current production entertains and impresses, however, because it features an energetic and talented cast. The ensemble executes the sometimes byzantine music and mostly boring plot with precision, gusto and aplomb.

Let the cries of “philistine” commence; the musical garnered six Tony Awards in 2005! Yes, three were for elements of its production design, and one for an acclaimed lead performance. Monty Python’s Spamalot beat it for Best Musical, and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee for Best Book. Guettel won for score and orchestrations. But much of the fancy composing fails to serve the show and singers well.

The story of star-crossed young Clara Johnson and Fabrizio Naccarelli, set in 1953, teeters between simple and simplistic. In Florence, American girl and Italian boy meet in a piazza and fall instantly in love, but must overcome obstacles before they can live happily ever after. The chief hurdle, initially, is language. Fabrizio knows a little English; Clara and her overprotective mother, Margaret, know just a few tourist-guide Italian phrases, pronounced with a heavy North Carolina accent.

Fabrizio’s suave dad, owner of the family menswear store where both his sons work, speaks more English. But the rest of the Naccarelli family communicates only in Italian. Loudly. Gesticulating broadly. Umm ... stereotipo molto grande, Signor Guettel? Because the Naccarellis converse and croon in Italian, their initial motives for welcoming Clara so eagerly are difficult to discern.

Margaret, however, confides to the audience her reason for objecting to the match. A childhood head injury has permanently hindered Clara’s emotional and intellectual development. Margaret fears Fabrizio and his family will reject her daughter if they discover her limitations. Plot twists — some believable, others not — shuffle the deck of characters who discourage and encourage the lovers’ path to the altar.

The Light in the Piazza contains little dialogue; most of the storyline unfolds in song. Except for the piano, the five-piece orchestra features delicate, subtle instrumentation: violin, cello, bass and harp. But compositional excesses — showy polyrhythms and needless dissonances — often work against the singing and make the songs hard to follow, let alone enjoy. In the Stowe production last Friday, music director and pianist Ashley O’Brien compounded this problem by not keeping the orchestra’s volume in check. It’s tough to do, admittedly, when conducting from the keyboard. But it was her loud piano playing that most often competed with the singers.

That said, director Kristen Bures’ eight-person cast performs the difficult material with astonishing ease. James Blanchard and Sarah DeGray have beautiful chemistry as Fabrizio and Clara. (DeGray and Victoria Drew play Clara on alternate nights.) Blanchard evokes winsome charm; DeGray, lovestruck innocence. Blanchard’s honeyed tenor tackles Guettel’s tricky tunes effortlessly, and blends well with DeGray’s clear soprano.

Bures herself gives a feisty, thoughtful performance as Margaret. Another director might have toned down her overdone Southern accent, but Bures certainly cast a terrific singer. Her mournful rendition of “Dividing Day” is a showstopper, backed beautifully by refined work from cellist Marc Estrin and harpist Regina Christianson.

All four supporting Naccarellis and swing performer Mike Ravey (who fills three roles) play their characters with zest. Ravey especially stands out for his portrait of Margaret’s emotionally detached husband, Roy, who talks coldly to her on the phone from North Carolina. Marc Yakubosky makes a debonair, confident Papa Naccarelli, while Joseph O. Grabon’s Giuseppe is impish and cheeky as “the one child who can do nothing right,” according to Papa.

Inventive sets, designed by Jane Harissis, take advantage of the Town Hall’s wide playing area. Off to one side is the Johnsons’ rustic hotel room; the Naccarellis’ store, with bright red awnings, sits on the opposite edge. At center stage, a large stone arch (which moves between scenes) becomes part of many different exterior and interior settings: the piazza, a church, even the Naccarellis’ home. Warm tones of cream, gold and brown help integrate the Hall’s gorgeous, gilded proscenium arch into the design.

Kudos to cast and crew for this polished production. They make it look easy as do-re-mi.

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