James Pickering and Words for an Aphasiac
In the role of a man recovering from a stroke, James Pickering is given kind of a challenge. Many days zoom by in the course of the play. From beginning to end, the character goes from not being able to remember the word for “hand” to being able to get across complex theoretic notions. Pickering handles the challenge admirably. His biggest success here, though, lies in selling the dialogue.
As a man suffering from post-stroke aphasia, Pickering’s character Ernie has a bit of a disjointed vocabulary. It’s fascinating to watch language out of joint. The character’s speech is a mash-up of proper words, extravagantly over-rendered words and words that only kind of sound like they might share some similarity in meaning with what they’re meant to express. The title Secret Mask is one of the strange expressions that pops into Ernie’s sentences occasionally. Definitions get misplaced and redirected. Words and meanings shift around, but some are constant. Ernie uses the word, “cardboard” when he means, “dead.” At one point he orders an entire assortment of sushi as, “the whole Christ on the cross.” It doesn’t make direct sense, but Pickering speaks it with the utter conviction of someone who doesn’t realize he’s not using the right words. I love how this adds a weird kind of depth to the character’s intellectual presence onstage. So often drama requires that emotions be delivered directly across the stage for dramatic effect. People don’t always say what they mean, but they so often say what they intend to say. In Ernie we have a character who is speaking words that reveal some depth to his personality without him even realizing it. It’s a really fun way to connect-up with a character from the audience in the confines of a family drama.
That Pickering is capable of believably navigating the strange logic of Ernie’s speech without losing track of the character’s fundamental humanity is quite an accomplishment on his part. The language Ernie’s speaking can be totally impenetrable in places, but Pickering speaks it with a confidence that brings the distinct character of aphasia quite vividly to the stage. It’s a very cool performance with respect to language that is fascinating to listen to. There’s a clever poetry to it all that amplifies the whole problem of communication between people who have great difficulty just trying to understand themselves.
Characterization through Ringtone
Next Act Artistic Director David Cecsarini makes a point of mentioning before the show that there are quite a lot of phone calls coming in over the course of the play. I’m not certain precisely how much direction the playwright gave with respect to the staging of the phone calls. Once again it feels like Cecsarini provides an added layer of characterization with the ringtones. (I’ve seen this before in a show that Cecsarini did sound design for and it’s really clever stuff.) As sound designer it may well have been his decision to provide different ringtones for George’s mother and his wife.
George’s mother rings with the sound of a classic telephone. George’s wife rings with a more contemporary-sounding ringtone. I love what that says about the character and how he thinks of them. Granted he IS old enough to probably more readily associate his mother with the bell ringing of a classic telephone and his wife he would more readily associate with something less antiquated, but here we actually get to see some aspect of how he relates to the two major women in his life by virtue of what he has it sound like when they call. The playwright never gives us the actual sound of the voices of these women. They are very important characters, but they’re only manifest onstage in George’s reactions to them, the times at which they call and their ringtones. It’s a really sharp added level of characterization.
Next Act Theatre’s production of The Secret Mask runs through Dec. 10 at Next Act’s space on 255 S. Water St. For ticket reservations, call 414-278-0765 or visit www.nextact.org. A full review of the show runs in the next print edition of the Shepherd-Express.