Friday, September 14, 2012

Review: (Ottawa) The Secret Mask

Within (and without) the Family
by Jim Murchison
Usually, the conflict and resolution of family rifts and the discovery of truths that we all recognize and relate to makes for good theatre. When it is layered and crafted as meticulously as Rick Chafe's understated masterpiece The Secret Mask it makes for great theatre. Most of the time we grow up not learning enough about each other, not speaking our minds and harbouring our resentments, but in The Secret Mask father and son meet as virtual strangers. George never really knew his father Ernie. Ernie left when he was two. At the beginning of the play the father is more the child, learning to speak and grabbing at fragments of thoughts in an effort to pull himself back to cognition after a stroke has severely reduced his memory.  George naturally resents his father deeply for leaving and dislikes him more for what he imagines him to be because he has never really known him.
The humour that comes from the characters' struggle builds the audiences empathy for the inner turmoil that they are faced with.
Of course a great play begins with the writing, but to carry off a great production you need a terrific cast and insightful direction and GCTC has both. Director Ann Hodges understands that for a story of characters' struggle to come to terms with their inner conflicts you let the story flow naturally from the characters. The humour that comes from the characters' struggle builds the audience's empathy for the inner turmoil that they are faced with.
Paul Rainville as the father, Ernie, starts the play as an infant having to relearn everything he once knew. Gradually layers of confusion and frustration drop from him and wisdom and grace reveal themselves in a performance that is funny and touching. 
Michael Mancini as George starts off as an impatient, all business estranged son. He is as completely detached from the situation as he is attached to his cell phone and evolves into a better father, son and human being. The transformation is performed beautifully and naturally without a trace of maudlin sentimentality.
Kate Hurman is the caregiver, speech therapist and every other supporting character. Each character is crisply and cleanly conveyed and her ensemble of characters finishes this truly ensemble cast in a way that never allows the focus to stray from Chafe’s rich story telling.
Marc Desormeaux’s sound and Karyn McCallum’s set design support the mood and texture of the play simply and beautifully. Jock Munro applies light with the same skill as a master painter applies his brush to canvas with perfect highlight and shadow.
The bar has been set very high for the season and new Artistic Director Eric Coates must be excited by the launch and his new audience. 

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