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Lack of communication key in dialogue-driven play

FROM the opening moment when middle-aged Winnipeg family man George arrives in a Vancouver hospital to see his stroke-stricken father after a 40-year estrangement, there is no escaping the forceful narrative pull of Rick Chafe's The Secret Mask.

Like George, the audience at Thursday's premiere performance at Prairie Theatre Exchange, comes upon a seemingly hale and hearty senior in a wheelchair, that is until Ernie opens his mouth and the non sequiturs begin spilling out. Worse, he can't tell his nose from his hand.

It's a shocking sight for George, who makes a first impression as an angry, disagreeable lost soul at odds with the world. He was only two when Ernie walked out on him and his mother. In need of answers to so many personal questions, George flies to Vancouver not out of any compassion but of plain self-interest.

The Wolseley playwright (Shakespeare's Dog, The Odyssey) has delved into his family's history (his octogenarian father Fred Chafe who had a stroke and suffered a resulting aphasia was in the opening-night audience) and uses many actual events to capture the generational vice that is squeezing aging baby boomers.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/11/2011 (2160 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

FROM the opening moment when middle-aged Winnipeg family man George arrives in a Vancouver hospital to see his stroke-stricken father after a 40-year estrangement, there is no escaping the forceful narrative pull of Rick Chafe's The Secret Mask.

Like George, the audience at Thursday's premiere performance at Prairie Theatre Exchange, comes upon a seemingly hale and hearty senior in a wheelchair, that is until Ernie opens his mouth and the non sequiturs begin spilling out. Worse, he can't tell his nose from his hand.

Skye Brandon (left) as  George and John B. Lowe as Ernie in The Secret Mask.

BRUCE MONK

Skye Brandon (left) as George and John B. Lowe as Ernie in The Secret Mask.

It's a shocking sight for George, who makes a first impression as an angry, disagreeable lost soul at odds with the world. He was only two when Ernie walked out on him and his mother. In need of answers to so many personal questions, George flies to Vancouver not out of any compassion but of plain self-interest.

The Wolseley playwright (Shakespeare's Dog, The Odyssey) has delved into his family's history (his octogenarian father Fred Chafe who had a stroke and suffered a resulting aphasia was in the opening-night audience) and uses many actual events to capture the generational vice that is squeezing aging baby boomers.

George is having communication problems with his unseen son, Reese, too. His authority is being defied by a teen who won't even answer his calls. His dilemma is pointedly captured by Chafe when George pleads with Reese in a cellphone message, "You've got to talk to me." Then he turns to Ernie on stage with the appeal, "Are you going to talk to me?"

The lack of communication in the family is symbolized by the aphasia, a neurological disorder in which the words that form in the heads of sufferers leave their mouths as nonsense gibberish. That dialogue is alternately funny, confusing and the distinctive voice of The Secret Mask, that rings in your ear long after exiting the theatre.

Ernie is a juicy opportunity for an actor to wow an audience and the unheralded John B. Lowe — kudos to director Bob Metcalfe for taking the chance — steps into the spotlight with a brilliant performance. He totally captures the panic and frustration of a man trapped inside his own head and effortlessly draws empathy as Ernie struggles with losing his independence in a post-stroke life. Lowe, PTE's school director, was often drafted to take part in early readings of the two-hour family comedy and his handling of the demanding wordplay was flawless and special.

Skye Brandon, an acting import from Stratford, has a tougher job getting liked playing George, whose world is crashing down all around him. It's a less flashy role but one more spectators will identify with as George becomes father to not only his son but his father. Brandon makes it obvious how the sins of the fathers are visited on their sons.

Chafe took the title of PTE's 139th world première from one of Ernie's perplexing utterances but it also refers to the way people hide from ourselves and their children with false faces that have nothing to do with reality.

With her typical proficiency, Sharon Bajer plays all the supporting characters, best of whom is Mae, the nurturing speech therapist who opens the lines of communication between George and Ernie. Brian Perchaluk's simple set is dominated by a cube depicting many images, which might reflect what is going on in Ernie's head.

While the family comedy might draw families, be aware the language can sound like Pat Martin on Twitter.

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

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