You don’t need to solve the whole puzzle or have all the fragments and pieces fit together perfectly to enjoy Theatre North West’s production of The Secret Mask.
It is so brilliantly done – thanks to a clever, heart warming script by Canadian playwright Rick Chafe and the skill of a very talented cast and crew – that an audience can discover their own solution to the puzzle.
Or if they wish, have it remain a mystery.
Such is the magic of live theatre.
I would love to borrow set/scenic designer Hans Saefkow just for one day to give my cluttered apartment a make-over in his minimal look maximum storage style. What a genius.
I will not spoil it for audiences but this set is quite spectacular in both theatrical effect and its literally layers of symbolism. Rubik’s Cube fans will love it because the key to unlocking the secret in this story of love and loss, I think, is to have patience. It may take several failed attempts to find a solution to life’s challenges and family relationships.
Director Jack Grinhaus has succeeded in his unique approach to this play in which the audience clings to the words of the play’s three actors in their own search for answers. Grinhaus not only did his own research, he brought in people who could best understand what it is like to battle against your own brain, to strive hard to be understood.
Ottawa actor David Warburton as Ernie said in an earlier interview with the Free Press that he learned a lot about how to realistically portray his character after hearing about the experiences of people from the local Stroke Recovery Group.
Ernie struggles with aphasia, memory loss brought on by his stroke. He is also reunited with the son he abandoned 40 years ago and now does not remember.
That’s a lot for anyone to take in.
Mark McGrinder of Toronto who portrays George, Ernie’s son, is the perfect foil for Warburton to allow his character’s deep set conflicting emotions to bubble to the surface with humour, pathos and everything in between.
It’s a bit of a roller coaster ride on stage but fortunately the new seats at TNW are a comfortable to watch it all unfold. During some of the more dramatic scenes, the audience got very quiet and I am not sure if that is because the difficult father-son relationship hit a few nerves or the dialogue got too intense. Certainly, the well timed delivery of Chafe’s funny, clever lines and the joyful one-upmanship felt by Ernie who discovers he still has his sense of humour is uplifting for the audience.
The comic relief is essential because in serious life matters (recovering from a stroke and trying to rebuild fragile relationships) the play would otherwise get bogged down in maudlin sentimentality.
Lauren Brotman expertly portrays speech therapist Mae as a very strong but not strident professional woman who cares about her work and its limitations in resources. She also pulls off with flair several other characters in what must be a true test of the skill level of any professional actor. She is enjoyable to watch and also just a little, perhaps, intimidating – which shows she truly is “in character” although her confidence appears to come from within.
Brotman is conducting a Shakespeare workshop this summer and budding actors will definitely learn from her. She is a true asset to the Theatre North West theatre family. And while it’s hard for me to imagine losing my words and not being able to communicate, the cast of Warburton, McGrinder and Brotman not only brings this important life’s event to the forefront but it deals with the background issues in a sensitive and authentic way.
Bravo Team Theatre North West.
The Secret Mask runs until May 13 at Theatre North West, Parkhill Centre. Performances are at 8 p.m. with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. on May 2 and 10. Tickets are at Books and Company, phone orders 250-614-0039.