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The Secret Mask: Compelling in its familiarity

By Andrew Snowdon on September 15, 2012

What’s funny about a stroke? Plenty. Enough, at least, to make for a play that’s sensitive and humorous in equal measure. The Secret Mask is a richly-written text given a worthy, full interpretation by three talented performers and a promising start to the Great Canadian Theatre Company’s 2012–13 season.

In The Secret Mask, Winnipeg businessman George Ryan (Michael Mancini) arrives in Vancouver to find his father Ernie (Paul Rainville) suffering from aphasia, relearning basic words in the care of speech therapist Mae (Kate Hurman) following a stroke. Ernie doesn’t recognize his son; not because of the stroke, but because they haven’t seen each other for forty years. Desperate to discover the father he never knew, George risks his relationship with his own family to join Ernie in the struggle of recovery.

Aphasia, loosely defined, is the total or partial inability to either understand (receptive aphasia) or articulate (expressive aphasia) spoken language, and is a fairly common result of a stroke. Playwright Rick Chafe’s rendering of expressive aphasia is expertly executed; Ernie, at least at first, speaks largely in gibberish, but there’s a connotative logic back of it that makes it mostly intelligible and adds to its veracity.

Chafe states that The Secret Mask is semi-autobiographical. This is always an invitation to speculate on how much is autobiography and how much is fiction (a concept worked into the text of the play itself). Of course, he’s referring in particular to his family’s experiences helping his own father recover from a similar stroke. To the degree that George is Chafe’s projection of himself (and this may be very little), he has permitted himself the luxury of self-criticism and avoided the sin of self-indulgence. In fact, George is a character who accepts very little personal responsibility for anything that happens to him. This is in counterpoint to, and motivates, his desire to help his estranged father—out of both a sense of duty and a craving for answers.

What makes stories like these compelling is not necessarily their uniqueness, but their familiarity. Although The Secret Mask covers the familiar ground of recovery, it’s usually through the eyes of someone with a close emotional bond with the person recovering (compare Jean Claude van Itallie’s The Traveller, also a semi-autobiographical account of recovery from a stroke producing expressive aphasia).

What sets The Secret Mask apart is not Ernie’s progress through recovery—that’s practically textbook—but the changing and deepening relationship between George and Ernie. Both Ernie and George are deeply flawed characters, especially in regards to their relationships with women, and that’s what makes them interesting.

The character work in this production is impressive. Once he gets warmed up, Mancini is convincing as a man who is torn between the responsibilities he already has, the responsibilities he finds he must take on, and his own personal quest. He has his own problems to deal with and is thrust into the role of dealing with someone else’s. George has a number of (well-constructed) one-sided telephone conversations that Mancini paces perfectly. Rainville has captured the spirit and personality of Ernie perfectly. Ernie’s dialogue and diction suggest a very particular sort of character, as they must if the character is based to a large extent on the playwright’s father, and Rainville nails it. Kate Hurman does a lot in this production; she gets to play nearly a dozen different characters—primarily Mae but also all manner of waitresses, rest home staff, even a fishing buddy—with a radically different costume and distinct characterization for each. It’s heavy lifting for an actor, but she makes it look easy.

The moment I saw the set for The Secret Mask, I wrote “That’s a very NAC set.” Now, if I hadn’t have read it in the program, I never would have guessed that these institutionally evocative tall vertical panels with alternating transparent and translucent horizontal lines were designed by the same person, Karyn McCallum who conceived the organic, open set—not much more than a circular dais and a ladder—for the NAC’s creation last season. It dovetails with Jock Munro’s lighting design to evoke a variety of moods and settings (and Vancouver’s legendary omnipresent rain). It’s a shame—and the one blot against the production’s otherwise top-tier professionalism—that when the panels are moved laterally for scene changes it’s not at all smooth. It’s a sleek set, but when it wobbles visibly it wrecks the effect (and the lovely score doesn’t always cover the squeaky rollers, either). I hope that’s something they can fix over the course of the run, because it’s rather distracting.

I will forgive the slightly overplayed joke about Winnipeg’s weather, on the basis that 1) the playwright is from Winnipeg, 2) the audience as a whole enjoys it even (what seems like) the fifteenth time, and 3) based on family experience, people from Vancouver really do mention it to people from Winnipeg exactly that often.

The Secret Mask tackles a topic that, mishandled, can be either morose, moralistic, or at worst, mundane. Instead, it is buoyed with honest humour. Director Ann Hodges has, in turn, taken this text and an experienced cast and delivered an enriching, cathartic theatre experience worth witnessing.

The Secret Mask plays until September 30 at the GCTC.