I’ve often railed against the inevitable standing ovations given these days to most productions, however indifferent. For once the one following THE SECRET MASK by Rick Chafe at GCTC was well deserved and I joined in enthusiastically. This delicate play is a rare combination of heartbreak and humor and the first rate cast and production do it justice.
THE SECRET MASK tells the story of forty-year-old George who gets a call out of the blue to come help his father Ernie, who left the family when George was only two. Ernie is recovering from a stroke as well as aphasia, substituting odd words in his struggle to be understood with often laugh-out-loud results. As he says, “I fell down and when I got up I was an idiot.” In the process of getting to know each other they both begin to deal with the pieces that remain, not the ones missing.
The three cast members could hardly be better. As Mae, Ernie’s speech therapist, Kate Hurman displays all the warmth and patience necessary to deal with his problems. Miss Hurman also does a fine job with the other female characters, at one point even morphing from a simpering waitress to a nursing home manager while delivering a line and crossing the stage.
Michael Mancini is excellent as George, who we gradually discover is as damaged as his father, although for different reasons. As Ernie begins to retrieve some language, George begins to better understand Ernie’s sometimes hilarious attempts to communicate.
Paul Rainville gives a wonderfully subtle performance as Ernie, letting us see both the character’s uncertainty and strength. At moments Ernie seems painfully lost and at others Mr. Rainville displays Ernie’s sense of humor, as in the eel story. There are also outbursts of frustration and powerful anger. In other words, this is a beautifully layered portrayal of a man fighting to recapture as much of himself as possible.
Karyn McCallum’s functional and workable set consists of tall panels of horizontal slats with doors right and left, backed by a scrim. The upstage panels glide sideways to form slightly different configurations, sometimes revealing an abstract architectural structure behind the scrim, while large low platforms slide on and off from the side walls.
Jock Munro’s lighting is extremely effective, particularly the patterns on the scrim, the rain effect and his use of gobos. Marc Desormeaux has written lovely music that is oddly cheerful yet haunting. His sound combined with Mr. Munro’s fine lighting during the truck ride is terrific.
Ann Hodges has staged and directed THE SECRET MASK with a sure hand. Her use of the actors to move the few pieces of furniture keeps the action fluid. She’s pulled all the elements of the production into a cohesive whole. The final stage picture sticks in the mind.
This is a production of great emotional power with wonderful moments of humor. THE SECRET MASK is an auspicious opener for the new season at GCTC. If you’re planning a visit to Ottawa, don’t miss it.
On a scale of one to five the GCTC production of THE SECRET MASK gets five solar panels. For North Country Public Radio I’m Connie Meng.