The Secret Mask is unpretentious, satisfying, and personal

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By Rick Chafe. Directed Pam Johnson. A Presentation House Theatre production at Presentation House on Friday, February 1. Continues until February 10

The Secret Mask is humble—and lovely.

Playwright Rick Chafe uses a series of naturalistic scenes to tell a story that’s as everyday and extraordinary as real life. When George was two, his father, Ernie, disappeared and George hasn’t heard from him for 40 years. But Ernie has had a stroke, and the hospital has called George to take care of things.

As a result of the stroke, Ernie has aphasia, which means that he mixes up his words, and much of the beauty and humour of the script arises from the surreal poetry of Ernie’s speech. At one point, Ernie instructs his son, “Get rid of the bumbershoot. You look Japanese.” When George reappears after absenting himself to deal with a troubled marriage, Ernie expresses his rage and sense of abandonment by saying, “Oh, this is all very agnostic.”

As everyone, including the audience, searches for meaning in words, George is searching for meaning in his relationship with his father. Why did Ernie leave? Was his dad really an asshole, as his mother had claimed? What does his relationship with Ernie have to teach him about his relationships with his own wife and son? I sometimes hoped for more definitive answers and more dramatic plot turns than playwright Chafe delivers. But once I settled into it, I generally appreciated Chafe’s restraint.

And if you want to see acting shmacting, by which I mean excellent performances, look no further than this Presentation House production. Haig Sutherland brings such intelligence and tenderness to everything he does that, frankly, I think I’d be happy to watch him perform the alphabet. Sutherland plays George, who can be a bit of a cool and condescending prick, so it was a smart move on director Pam Johnson’s part to cast an actor who’s so easy to empathize with. Charismatic, passionate, and precise, Jay Brazeau is also perfectly cast as Ernie. You might not always understand the mechanics of what Ernie is trying to say, but you never question the emotional clarity of Brazeau’s delivery. Alison Kelly plays several characters, the speech therapist, May, being the most important. The salt-of-the-earth compassion and humour that Kelly brings to her work grounds the evening.

All elements of the design match the simplicity and effectiveness of Chafe’s writing and the actors’ performances.

The Secret Mask is unpretentious, satisfying, and personal: a lovely handmade sweater, a loving home-cooked meal.

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