Skye Brandon and John B. Lowe in PTE's The Secret Mask (Bruce Monk)
It's not until near the end of Winnipeg playwright Rick Chafe's The Secret Mask that we discover what "the secret mask" really is. But by that point, we know what The Secret Mask (as in the play) is - engaging, heartbreaking, tragicomically funny, and one of the finest new locally-penned plays to hit the stage in recent years.
The story Chafe tells here is partially autobiographical. His surrogate here is George, a 40-ish Winnipegger trying to hold his own shaky family life together when he's called to come to the aid of his estranged dad Ernie - who, after a stroke, begins to suffer from aphasia, a condition which leads to replacing one word with another.
The confounding wordplay which results provides most of the play's much needed - and liberally-sprinkled - humour. When Ernie instructs George to "carriage my bottle shipper type," we're as hopelessly befuddled as (but considerably more amused than) George.
This could easily become a cruel exercise in making fun of a man with a serious medical condition, but Chafe avoids this pitfall by making Ernie a fully-rounded and sympathetic character. We feel his frustration, but also acknowledge that he's an imperfect human being, and realize that whatever pity we feel for him doesn't erase his past mistakes. All of this makes for a complicated, and compelling, father-son relationship, beautifully realized under Robert Metcalfe's finely-pitched direction.
Chafe's writing shines through John B. Lowe's performance as Ernie, which is nothing short of spectacular (mastering dialogue that often amounts to gibberish is an impressive technical feat - conveying as much meaning through it is as Lowe does is a show-stopping performance).
Skye Brandon has a perhaps equally difficult job as George - we're not given many reasons to like him. But Brandon finds enough vulnerability and humanity in the character that we root for him anyway, as he experiences the "sandwich" of trying to father a teenage son and care for an aging parent - a job complicated by the fact that his own father is, quite literally, a stranger to him. More than being an "issues play" about dealing with a medical condition, this is a universal - and moving - story about a child connecting with a parent.
Playing several supporting roles - principally Mae, a speech therapist - Sharon Bajer rounds out the cast with a fine performance, but she hasn't got a lot to work with. Even considering that this story really belongs to Ernie and George, one of the few knocks against The Secret Mask is that Mae is more glue in the plot than a well-developed character.
But the message at the heart of The Secret Mask comes through loud and clear - communicating with family can be a struggle, but we come out the other side as better people for the effort.
It's a secret worth taking to heart.
Joff Schmidt, CBC theatre reviewer (CBC)
Image in article: Skye Brandon and John B. Lowe in PTE's The Secret Mask (Bruce Monk)