Ottawa actor David Warburton brings to The Secret Mask much more than his award-winning skills and experience in theatre.
He also brings to this funny and moving play a little piece of his heart and a glimpse into his private life.
His role as Ernie, a stroke survivor who struggles hard to be understood, is in many ways challenged like Warburton was – at one time in his life.
“I grew up south of Manchester, England and, as a child, I suffered from very severe migraines that often affected me so badly, my speech actually got impaired. When the attacks were particularly bad and when I tried to speak, everything came out jumbled up. Even my mother had a hard time understanding me,” he said.
“It was difficult for me because I had to take medication to help relieve the migraine symptoms and, for that, I was taken to the ‘mental hospital’ – it was just terrifying.
“So I do understand a little about institutions which comes up in [the Secret Mask]. Fortunately for me, though, it (migraine headaches) got better and I grew out of it.”
Warburton recalls first being on stage at age five in a production called The Wedding of a Painted Doll. He played the bridegroom.
From there, the actor performed in several Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and then was cast in Shakespearean theatre in plays such as The Tempest (Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre).
He’s a big fan of Winnipeg playwright Rick Chafe and his genius one-liners.
“I’ve worked with Rick’s scripts before and they’re always lots of fun. So I am pleased to be here working on The Secret Mask.
Rick actually has two parallel stories going on in this one, there is Ernie and his struggles to become more articulate, and then there is the relationship between father and son.”
Warburton says (spoiler alert) while he doesn’t want to give too much away about the play’s storyline, he does offer that the son has “issues” with his father who has been estranged from him for most of his life, and although there are still some questions that go unanswered, some parts of the father-son dynamics have improved by the conclusion of the play.
Here too, Warburton can offer a personal perspective and some insight into his character which, as of rehearsals Wednesday, was still being finely tuned.
Rather like his on-stage son, George (portrayed by Toronto actor Mark McGrinder), Warburton’s own son was a stranger to him until they reunited some years ago.
“It was a separation situation and I hadn’t seen my son for 18 years. I fought tooth and nail for him – but I couldn’t get to see him. We finally got together and now everything is fine.”
Helping with the emotional and mental healing of Ernie (and, as it turns out, George), is a speech therapist named Mae, who is portrayed by Prince George actor Lauren Brotman.
In addition to his memory loss, the stroke has left George with aphasia or impaired language ability and Mae gives him tasks designed to help him communicate.
The Secret Mask by Rick Chafe runs April 23 to May 13 at TNW, Parkhill Centre. Performances start at 8 p.m., Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. on May 3 and May 10.
Tickets are at Books and Company, phone orders at 250-614-0039