The Secret Mask

Haig Sutherland, Alison Kelly and Jay Brazeau. Credit: Chris Van Der Schyf
Haig Sutherland, Alison Kelly and Jay Brazeau.
Credit: Chris Van Der Schyf

At Presentation House until February 10

Posted on February 9, 2013

If I ever find myself in the position Ernie (Jay Brazeau) finds himself in, let me have a speech therapist as compassionate and perceptive as Her Royal Highness (Alison Kelly) and an adult child like George (Haig Sutherland) to hold my hand.

Of course her name isn’t really Her Royal Highness but that’s what Ernie calls her because he can’t remember her name. He can’t remember his, either.

In this tender play by Rick Chafe, three days ago Ernie suffered a stroke and although all the moving parts are still moving and parts of his brain still work, he suffers from aphasia, a disturbance in the formulation and comprehension of language. Strangely, Ernie can add numbers and can print – but he can’t remember the words. A pencil becomes a “panker”; the “square box” is his house. And he confuses his life with movies he’s seen.

It’s a boomer’s nightmare, the whole situation. Eight weeks in the hospital with speech therapy twice a day sounds good but hanging like an axe over Ernie’s head is what Her Royal Highness calls “an appropriate discharge destination”. In other words, where will Ernie go?

If this all sounds gloomy, it’s not. That’s because director Pam Johnson has taken a light but perceptive hand to Chafe’s script and she has cast the play impeccably. While Brazeau clearly shows Ernie’s frustration bordering on meltdown when he can’t remember from day to day what the word for ‘fork’ is, he’s also tremendously funny. “I’m very agnostic about this”, “What do you call it? I’d better not irrigate it”, “Where did you learn to expectorate?” and, “Oh, I’m right penciled in” begin to sound very amusing. When he can’t remember the word for cow after the therapist has given him clues (it goes, moooo and starts with a ‘cuh’), she finally breaks down and tells him, “Cow”. Ernie rolls his eyes in derision and snorts, “Obviously”. Brazeau makes it so funny you momentarily forget that, for most of us, speech loss is ‘way up there on our list of faculties we don’t want to lose.

Kelly plays a variety of roles: the not-so-sympathetic – and probably badly overworked – social worker Mrs. Barrett; the overly cheerful woman who evaluates the kind of facility that Ernie requires; the woman who finally finds a place for him; and a grumpy waitress who turns a corner and just goes with the flow. Sure, she’ll bring him the “the whole Jesus Christ on the cross” if that’s what he wants. Kelly is particularly good as the speech therapist: she’s so gentle and patient and supportive – you just want to hug her.

Like Ernie, his son George has a painful journey to make and the smartest, sweetest thing about The Secret Mask is that father and son make it together. Sutherland is such an honest, straight-ahead actor – always a bit forlorn looking. His shifts are subtle and his joy, when it comes, floods the theatre.

Presented by Presentation House Theatre, all this tenderness and warmth happen on Drew Facey’s set – a series of shoji-type screens – illuminated by Gerald King. Very handsome.

For such a potentially gloomy, scary subject, The Secret Mask is an uplifting show and a lovely play. My only regret is that I didn’t see it earlier in the run so I could tell everyone to see it. It closes February 10 with a 2PM matinee.