BWW Review: THE SECRET MASK Moves with Subtle Power at Milwaukee's Next Act Theatre
It's the holiday season, and around the Milwaukee theater scene there is no shortage of show-stopping good cheer and merriment to be had. 'Tis the season for a feel-good extravaganza! But at the Next Act Theatre, there's something much more subtle, raw, and real now on stage; no spunky red heads or theatrical snow showers here.
It's The Secret Mask, a play by Rick Chafe, rife with heart and a lovely smattering of humor. It's the story of an estranged father and son and their journey to (we hope) reconciliation. Ernie, the father played by James Pickering, has just suffered a stroke, and with no one else to turn to, calls on his son George, played by Drew Parker, for help. Ernie is struggling with memory and speech loss; George is struggling with 40 years of hurt feelings.
Each party delivers intense, believable performances from start to finish, and that's the real joy in this Secret Mask. I especially love how Pickering can break your heart with just a look. Parker, on the other hand, really nails every distressing, anger-ridden, and sorrowful scene. This is a man who has hit rock bottom, while coming to grips with a lifetime of abandonment issues. Parker makes us feel every emotion right along with him. Pair him with Pickering for two hours of intimate theater, and it's deeply moving. I spied many tearful eyes in the crowd that night - myself included.
Rounding out the cast and giving us moments of levity and humor is Tami Workentin as Mae, Ernie's speech therapist. She's warm, comforting, and just who you'd want helping your own father after a stroke. She also switches gears to a delightful slew of bit parts: a nervous bank teller, a chatty waitress, Ernie's old fisherman pal. Workentin moves effortlessly from one character to the next, and it's great fun to watch. The simple set design also transports us with ease from a hospital to a local diner to seaside cliffs.
The bottom line, good theater is good theater, whatever the season. There was a time when James Pickering - a Milwaukee living legend - would be playing Ebenezer Scrooge during the holiday season; he holds the 14-season record as the Milwaukee Repertory Theater's longest-running Scrooge. Pickering has now moved on to something more nuanced and much less flashy, and it's a good move. These are the kind of fine performances that stick with you, and if you're an avid theatergoer, that's one of the best gifts you could receive this season.
Photos Credit: Ross Zentner