Rick Chafe’s The Secret Mask at Prairie Theatre Exchange, Thursday, November 17, 2011
Reviewed by Stephanie Adamov
The premiere of Rick Chafe’s new play was cause for excitement at Prairie Theatre Exchange. The Secret Mask’s unveiling in the Winnipeg theatre received quite the support on opening night. PTE’s artistic director, Robert Metcalfe, monitored and facilitated the delicate balance that was required from the actors, as the play pivoted between two central themes: the integral relationship between a father and son as well as that of a family member living with a disability.
As jokes flew throughout the play making ‘cold’ remarks about the son’s chilling roots (much to the enjoyment of the audience), the play did focus on increasingly tender subjects and overall received a warm response from the ‘Winterpeg’ patrons.
This partially autobiographical and comedic drama portrayed by a trio of actors was inspired by Chafe’s own experience with his father suffering a stroke. Although fictional in many other regards, the inspiration was evidently quite personal for Chafe.
Featured originally as a ten-minute piece in the inaugural Carol Shields Festival based on his father’s progress post-stroke, the Toronto-born, Winnipeg-raised playwright expanded the story from ten to 110 minutes. The play exposes the difficulty in dealing with a situation in which a family member suffers from an event that has detrimental effects on mental functions such as memory and speech.
As the play progresses, the viewers come to realize that the father abandoned his son at the age of two and now is absolutely depending on him forty years later. With his aphasia, Ernie has no recollection of deserting his son, and indeed has difficulty recalling that he even has one.
The story moves toward reconciliation between the protagonists. Ernie is upset that George disappeared to Winnipeg for what was actually eight weeks but seemed to him to be eight years. George has a more demanding request of Ernie. George demands answers. He has grown up unsure of his roots and paternal history. Upon stumbling on a manuscript in Ernie’s apartment, the son begins rummaging through photos, notes, and journals, and interrogates his father for answers.
The past and recollection of such is an activity that is extremely painful for Ernie and so this pursuit is segmented and yet persisted in throughout the drama. As George increasingly becomes involved and overwhelmed with this paternal obligation, his home and work-life slowly begin to deteriorate. Parallels are drawn between George’s interactions with his own son, and his past lack of relationship with his father. This is presented through short scenes of cell phone conversations with his wife, mother and son. It appears as though those relationships begin to suffer as his interaction with his father grows in intensity and closeness.
Aphasia is the specific condition that Ernie, skillfully portrayed by PTE school director John B. Lowe, as well as Chafe’s father, suffered from. The condition affects one’s mental processes that turn memory into speech. Individuals living with aphasia will be able to think, and know the words they wish to say, but are unable to transform those thoughts into speech.
Memory is also affected in this condition. Early stages may happen to resemble an individual with an intellectual disability but the condition of aphasia affects the processes from which the mind processes and develops thoughts into speech.
From personal experience working with disability support, I tend to be critical of this sort of portrayal of a disability. Humour is a commonly overused vehicle when approaching this difficult subject matter. Comedy may be effective to diffuse a tense situation, but through misuse one begins to only see the disability and not the individual as a whole person.
Upon seeing the piece, I continued to recognize that portraying a character with a seemingly mental disability is difficult water to tread, difficult in both the action presented by the performers as well as gauging the audience’s reaction, interpretation and discernment.
But The Secret Mask effectively executes this balance through the character of Mae, as well (more discreetly) through George’s character development. Mae, played by PTE veteran Sharon Bajer, by the use of gesture and her character’s gentile nature establishes the speech therapist as a coach rather than a cheerleader. She is constructive in her sessions with Ernie and never becomes overly enthusiastic or talks down to him as if he were merely a diagnosis. Through short sessions, she guides Ernie to recover the vocabulary that he has lost and expresses understanding when he grows frustrated as well as tired.
Mae’s attitude is in stark contrast to George’s fury when he comes to visit his father and disregards the acquired vocabulary of “dog” and “cat” as major improvements to Ernie’s quality of life. Although these seemingly minute improvements are regarded by George to be insignificant, Mae reminds him (and the audience too) that each and every improvement is integral to the path of recovery.
Stratford resident Skye Brandon begins his performance with what for me was a rocky start with his portrayal of the skeptical son George. I found however, that the uneasiness proves to be a method to express the tension of reuniting with his father, rather than a fault of the performer. As a character, George shoulders the burden of presenting the prejudice against those with a disability by his reactions and dialogue with his father. This is where broad humour might be a trap for the play.
As George attempts to conduct mock tests for his father’s memory and recognition, it is obviously not amusing for Ernie and he makes that clear by blankly asking “Why?” when George prompts him to identify objects. From this moment, I found that the play was reestablishing the focus on Ernie’s ability and adaptability rather than his quirky interactions with other characters.
As George’s relationship with Ernie progresses, George indulges in conversation with his father, often misusing language as a means of genuinely wanting to understand his dad. This I found to be a revelation of the piece and allowed for the humanity of the humour to shine through, rather than distorting or labeling the character as merely having a disability. By walking away from unrealistic expectations of his father’s progress, George humbles himself and develops as a whole person.
In addition to Mae and George’s involvement in the piece, the program included information about aphasia. This increased audience awareness, and in this performance allowed the comedy to be effective and tasteful, rather than directed at the condition of George’s father.
Artistically represented through Brian Perchaluk’s abstract set and Don Benedictson’s jarring almost mechanical soundscape creates a broken-down quality to the theatrical piece.
The set is quite simple yet effective in execution. A table with surrounding chairs is where most of the action occurs. Whether a hospital, truck, restaurant or retirement facility, the sound effects establish the environment as well as the project watermarked over the upstage portrait.
A portrait of Ernie is displayed upstage centre but it is sectioned off and seemingly distorted by a layering effect between metal bars. The rendition of Ernie is distorted but not incomplete. The portrait symbolizes Ernie’s mental presence for the duration of the play, and he himself is also physically present in tableau directly centre stage from when the first audience member arrives.
During the course of the play, George deliberately disregards his father’s opinion and voice. The speech therapist graciously and persistently includes Ernie in every conversation. Later, George begins to recognize his father’s presence and acknowledges him, when earlier in the course of the play he would have been disregarded. George grows to even indulge Ernie when his aphasia causes him to say the wrong words consistently. When Ernie is confused he confesses that he is feeling “agnostic,” and George allows for this mistake in order to promote his father’s independence and intelligence.
However, this is not the only obstacle that the father and son must face and overcome. When the nervous and skeptical George, portrayed by Stratford resident Skye Brandon, arrives at the Vancouver hospital, he finds his father to be an inconvenience and an emotional burden. He makes hotheaded and sarcastic remarks about his father’s progress to the speech therapist, Mae, played by PTE veteran Sharon Bajer.
Never faltering in the art of optimism, Mae, later referred to as ‘Her Royal Highness’ (this is out of respect from both gentlemen not sarcasm or mockery), she regards each word spoken with genuine positive reinforcement and as recognizable improvement to be celebrated. This too is a difficult load to extract from a performer. Bajer remains encouraging without becoming a cheerleader. She is sincere without attempting to sugar coat issues or her concerns. She is inclusive and challenges George to emulate her actions, even with his difficulty forgiving his father. Mae remains realistic about Ernie’s prognosis and doesn’t hesitate to remind Ernie’s son to maintain composure and duty to his father, regardless of his personal distaste for the man.
Bajer graces the audience with her presence as she reappears as the waitress, lawyer, retirement home coordinator and several other minor yet essential characters throughout the piece. Even through she juggles multiple characters, through her movement and action she plays each role notably.
The Secret Mask’s debut challenges both audience and characters to grow in awareness and responsibility. Increasing a realistic perspective on stroke victims during their recovery process, as well as addressing the complex relationship between fathers and sons, this show concisely presents these trials and examines potential solutions. Using the devices of humour and honesty, Rick Chafe and this PTE production ultimately project the humanity that resides within each character and audience member.