The “sandwich generation” is a term that’s been applied to Baby Boomers in particular; in mid-life they are working to usher their children out of the nest, off to college, or first jobs, and simultaneously many of them are becoming caregivers for their aging parents. It’s a juggling act that requires not only a lot of love and patience, but a strange transition to new roles — parenting their parents and slowly adjusting to new relationships with their adult children. Inevitably it also involves making a lot of mistakes, even with the best of intentions. And like all complicated relationships, communication is key.
The Secret Mask, by Rick Chafe, focuses on one such family where George (Drew Parker) is struggling to meet the needs of his dissatisfied wife, his petulant teenage son, and his aging father Ernie, who has just suffered a debilitating stroke. To compound the challenge, Ernie (played exquisitely by Jim Pickering) has lost a great deal of his memory and much of his language skills. And oh yeah, Ernie abandoned his son four decades ago and has had no contact with him until the day George shows up at the rehabilitation center, where the play begins.
In a story full of troubled relationships, the only one that really matters, or has any earned emotional weight, is the one we see unfolding onstage between George and Ernie. Under the best circumstances it would be gut wrenching to see this father and son try to reconnect after 40 years and the pain of a parent’s ultimate betrayal—disappearing from their child’s life. But hampered by sketchy memories on both sides, a lot of unresolved anger, and Ernie’s inability to find the words he needs to even name simple nouns, the path to reconciliation is even longer and more fraught.
These scenes are the heart of the play—frustrating and moving in equal measure as the two men move towards and away from each other in a complicated dance. Part of the magic of the story comes from the playwright’s deft use of language to characterize Ernie’s aphasia. In his impaired state, he misuses words and describes common terms in confusing, often funny ways. His apartment becomes “the square place.” His speech therapist becomes “her royal highness.” A gun becomes “a piece of potato.” It is a testament both to the writing and the Pickering’s flawless and specific delivery that the audience understands so much of the jumbled speech merely through inflection, and that we feel a real desperation to comprehend what he’s trying so hard to say.
It is both gratifying and incredibly painful to watch George and Ernie work through legal issues, financial issues, long-term care options and their personal journeys of forging a new relationship, and that is largely credited to extraordinary performances by both Pickering and Parker. Pickering’s frustration with his malfunctioning body and brain are palpable. He wears his raw vulnerability, both at the mercy of the medical system and his estranged son’s wishes, on his open and expressive face.
Parker is also exceptional, physically trying to hold it together as his character careens through anger, regret, pain, guilt, and desperation. (He is also sentenced by the playwright to conduct many scenes with unseen characters on his cell phone, which he does with aplomb. These are not easy, since they require the actor to communicate both sides of a conversation with no onstage help.) An actor of exceptional range and honesty, I hope that he graces more Milwaukee stages in the future.
Tami Workentin has the thankless job in this three-person show of portraying “everyone else” that the father-son duo need to talk to. She does it seamlessly, with only the smallest prop or costume change, but none of her characters are all that deep or interesting. Her main role, of Mae the speech therapist, is poorly drawn — the saintly caregiver rediscovering Ernie’s speech and lifeskills one minute, becoming judgmental and over-involved with George the next.
And that’s part of the problem with the play overall. It meanders from day to day, situation to situation without a clear arc or sense of purpose. Some scenes feel thrown in, such as Ernie’s reconnection with one of his fishing buddies, and many are red herrings such as his half-hearted threat to commit suicide and the arctic adventures of his own father. More egregious is the construction of George’s family back home, who are not so patiently waiting for him to settle his father’s affairs and return. Compared to his hate-filled mother, his shrewish wife, his unfeeling boss, and his bratty, out-of-control son, George’s dad looks like a gem. And his behavior towards them — mostly yelling mean-spirited threats on the phone — is despicable. This brutal back-story pays off with one line in the final moments of the play, but it’s not enough to justify the distraction it creates from the real emotional through-line of the drama.
According to the foreword in the script, Mr. Chafe had both the help and the hindrance of basing this play on many personal experiences dealing with his own father after a stroke. There is no question that this lends incredible authenticity to Ernie’s character. But it probably also muddled the writer’s ability to craft a coherent, unified play. Real life is never as neat as a dramatic arc, and details that seem essential to those who lived through them are often tangential to a good narrative.
There is no question that The Secret Mask features great performances. Unfortunately, they don’t add up to a great play.
What: The Secret Mask presented by Next Act
When: through December 10th
Where: Next Act Theatre, 255 South Water Street
Who: Directed by Edward Morgan, featuring James Pickering, Tami Workentin, and Drew Parker
How much? $22.50 - $38
More info: nextact.org
Why go? A cathartic experience for anyone who has cared for a parent in their later years, the show has masterful performances that are worth seeing.