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THE SECRET MASK
The Importance of Being Ernie
Anyone knocked out by the realism of the French film Amour—a dogma 95-like drama capturing the severe intimacy of caring for a dying partner in real time after a retired music teacher suffers a stroke—will easily appreciate The Secret Mask, anchored by an endearing performance by Jay Brazeau—illuminating the courage and compassion required to preserve dignity after a parent has a stroke in Vancouver.
George, in his 40s, is frightened when he arrives at Lions Gate Hospital from the airport to see Ernie, in his 70s, who doesn’t recognize George, his son. Yesterday Ernie couldn’t even speak. It is three days since his stroke. Now suffering from aphasia, Ernie is recovering, one garbled word at a time, beset by frustration and humiliation.
May, the hospital speech therapist, tries to inject some healing spirit, coaxing Ernie to regain his vocabulary while words are projected from Ernie’s mouth with the comic randomness of errant spitballs. Meanwhile, much to the consternation of both the diligent May and the irritated audience, George remains more attentive to his cell phone than his father’s plight. Turns out George’s marriage in Winnipeg is falling apart and he is increasingly estranged from his 15-year-old son.
George’s reluctance to come to Vancouver and his selfish behavior only makes sense when we learn Ernie disappeared from the family home when George was a toddler and he never communicated with his son since. As some obscure references to a secret mask do not abundantly make clear, it turns out The Secret Mask is as much about a father-son reunion after forty years of complete estrangement as it is an exploration of the modern health care system and the terrible strain of placing a parent in a nursing home. George gets to pronounce he has done more for his father in one week than his father did for him in a lifetime.
If this all sounds disturbing, one hastens to say it’s not. The Secret Mask is more amusing than grim mainly because Brazeau—like Jean-Louis Trintignant in Amour—is so engagingly credible and adept in the lead role. We welcome this degree of verisimilitude in both the movie and the play because, in a media-sated world rife with inane lyrics and insulting piffle, it’s a relief to encounter intelligent entertainment that can lead us towards a greater appreciation of human vulnerability.
“I am feeling kind of heperdashery!” Ernie blurts. Gradually Ernie’s invented or misused words start to become acceptable and even understandable to George for their delightful musicality, their playfulness. Whereas George was initially eager to return to Winnipeg, and willing to allow his father to be siphoned off to the first available bed, site unseen, eight weeks later George reappears for a second visit and changes his tune. It helps when May finally drops her professional decorum and shouts, “A bit of compassion is what he needs. Grow up!”
It won’t ruin the ending if you know Ernie turns out to be a failed novelist. Or that father and son venture into the world to discover whether or not Ernie has any money. The rest you’ll just have to see for yourself. Haig Sutherland plays the shakey George; Alison Kelly handles all female roles; Pam Johnson directs. There’s nothing exceptional about the production values. The script is more often serviceable than scintillating. No matter. This is theatre for adults.
For anyone dealing with a parent losing his or her grasp on reality, The Secret Mask has recognizable moments; for anyone not yet dealing with a parent losing his or her grip, well, there’s little to be gained by prolonged ignorance: the struggle to retain dignity can be intimidating for all parties involved. Regardless of how much time you’ve devoted to elder care, Brazeau’s depiction of Ernie is worth the trip to North Vancouver.
See the movie, see the play.