It is a compelling and heart-tugging story of lost and found.
The Secret Mask opens this week at Theatre North West and one of its main characters is Ernie, who has suffered a stroke and has aphasia. Finding the right words to convey what he wants to say is a daily challenge, and he works with a speech therapist to help him overcome his communication problems.
As well, Ernie is visited by the son he left behind many years ago and who now has questions he wants answered – questions that even if he could find the right words, the father would now have difficulty saying them.
The play has two themes running through it: lost memory and found father-son relationship. Both require significant struggle for Ernie but even his son George (Mark McGrinder of Toronto) has his own to struggles trying to cope with the new normal of his life.
Accomplished Ottawa actor David Warburton, who portrays Ernie in his debut role with TNW, says the play shines a spotlight not just on the plight of stroke survivors but also on the challenges facing their caregivers, health-care providers and other professionals “who are so committed to helping but also are constrained by time and (patient) load.”
As the story by Canadian playwright Rick Chafe unfolds, it touches on the issue of how best to care for these people and help them maintain their independence for as long as possible, when it means that more and more human and financial resources have to be found in this area of healthcare.
“We have an aging population now and so we’re hearing more about things like Alzheimer’s disease and dementia,” said Warburton in a break from rehearsals last week. “Having the group from the Stroke Recovery Branch come out and talk with us was extremely helpful. We had people there who had recently suffered a stroke and others who, although they had their strokes long ago, were still struggling to find the words to speak – the frustration must be enormous.”
Warburton said he tapped into that human emotion when forming his character.
“This play deals with a human condition that clearly affects the lives of a lot of people. It can be a big challenge for extended family members. What you get from this play is that when this sort of thing happens to us, we really do have to pick up the pieces and we move on. Ernie is good at math and he likes to sing, so clearly some areas (of his brain) are targeted more than others.”
The Secret Mask is not “preachy” when it attempts to deal with these important issues, says Warburton, who has worked with Chafe’s scripts before.
“This is a play that even younger audiences can enjoy. I really like his writing. When you see this play – it’s a play which recently has seen more productions – you can really appreciate how different Rick’s writing style is, he uses fresh language, it’s very truthful, and humour plays a big role in the script.”
The Secret Mask by Rick Chafe runs until May 13 at Theatre North West, Parkhill Centre. Tickets are available at Books and Company, phone orders 250-614-0039. Director of the play is Jack Grinhaus, scenic design by Hans Saefkow with sound design by Jon Russell.