Pickering moving and powerful as “Secret Mask” hits home at Next Act

Sometimes – only occasionally – we get a chance to step into an area of rarefied air, a place where perfection lives and the world seems to bask in the glow of a magnificent light.

Exhibit One – James Pickering at “The Secret Mask” at Next Act Theatre.

Part of this is the demands of the role created by playwright Rick Chafe. But a bigger part is the way Pickering roared into the role with the strength, serenity and majesty of a lion the king of a pride.

Artistic Director David Cecsarini has a lengthy history of bringing unseen and powerful plays to Next Act, and Mask is no exception.

Mr. Pickering plays Ernie, a 70-something man who has suffered an aphasia  stroke.

The American Stroke Association describes it this way.

“Aphasia does not affect intelligence. Stroke survivors remain mentally alert, even though their speech may be jumbled, fragmented or impossible to understand. Some survivors continue to have trouble speaking, like getting the words out”,trouble finding words, problems understanding what others say, problems with reading, writing or math or an inability to process long words and infrequently used words.”

Ernie is working with Mae (Tami Workentin), a speech pathologist when his son George (Drew Parker) arrives to visit with the father he hasn’t seen since Ernie walked out 40 years ago.

That the two men are virtual strangers is complicated by the disabling of any kind of meaningful conversation between the two. Mae is an optimist, full of praise over the most minimal of progress for Ernie. George is Angry and hopeless over the seemingly disconnected reality where Ernie is stuck.

The first meeting between the three is a harbinger of what’s to come.

Mae: That’s a good day’s work, Ernie.  I bet you’re tired.

Ernie:  Yep.

Mae:  He needs lots of rest, so I’d suggest just a couple of minutes.

 Your son’s here now, Ernie. Everything’s going to be fine. You and George can go over to the lunchroom and have a short visit—

George:  Can I talk to you a minute?

Mae:   —and then I’ll send someone to get you. (to George) I have to see another client right away, but I can set up some time with you this afternoon—

George:   Just—seriously. Is this it?

Mae: No no, it’s only been three days since the stroke.

George: He can’t put two words together.

Mae: It’s a lot to take in, I know, but he’s going to improve.

George:Just roughly—is he going to be able to answer an intelligent question any time soon?

Mae:  I can’t say how quickly, but I can almost promise you’ll see progress.

Have you spoken with the social worker yet, Mrs. Barrett?

George:  She can’t see me until three, I could really stand to be filled in right now.

Mae: Let’s sit down right after you’re finished with Mrs. Barrett. She’ll give you the whole overview of what’s ahead. The team who will be working with your dad, some of the timelines you might expect, the changes you need to be getting ready for—

George: No.

Mae: I’m with your dad again at ten o’clock tomorrow. Why don’t you come sit in with us and I’ll clear some time after.

George:I had no idea he’d be like this.Mae: I’m sorry to be so rushed. This can be overwhelming. The most important thing is he needs you and you’re here for him now.

George: …. No.

Mae: I’m going to get an orderly to take your father back to his room.

I think you really need to have a chat with Mrs. Barrett. Okay?

George: Just—have her call me.

George has come to Vancouver on business and he is obviously throw for a loss by his father and unwilling or unable to step up to the plate. There is nobody else in Ernie’s life and George is determined to remain reluctant to do much. He harbors a palpable resentment of the man who left him and his mother 40 years ago.

The play is a journey taken by father and son that moves haltingly forward with a series of setbacks as they move. The journey is further complicated b y another father-son relationship, the one between George and the unseen Reese, 15-years-old and a hostile rebel to his father.

George faces unexpected and profound disappointments and crises during the two hours of this play, but finds, much to his surprise, solace in the fractured relationship with his father.

Mr. Pickering delivers a performance that must rank near the top of his storied career. He captures everything there is to capture about Ernie. He’s funny and confused and angry and sad and charming – oh, is he charming.  It’s a performance of such subtlety that I didn’t realize how glorious it was until the curtain call.

Mr. Parker is new to Next Act and shows displays a range of emotions and purpose with skills. It’s not easy to be a character who an audience dislikes at one point and then loves with abandon at another. But Mr. Parker is clearly up to the task.

Ms. Workentin, one of the most reliable actors in Milwaukee, not only plays the speech pathologist but also creates several minor roles as a restaurant server, a nursing home hustler, a fishing buddy of Ernie’s, a bank teller and  a lawyer. She has remarkable versatility and creates different characters with only minor touches that only an experienced and talented actor can deliver.

Despite all the skills from director Edward Morgan and the other designers and actors, this is a play that belongs to Mr. Pickering. He is an actor who has a clarity of understanding that all things must be in service to the story and is generous to all who share a stage and a seat in the audience.

His ability to marvel seems to never wane.

“The Secret Mask” runs through December 10 at Next Act Theatre.

Production credits: Director, Edward Morgan; Scenic Design, Rick Rasmussen; Lighting Design, Aaron Sherkow; Costume Design, Dana Brzezinski; Sound Design, David Cecsarini; Properties Design, Heidi Slater & Shannon Sloan Spice; Stage Manager, Jessica Connelly.

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