By Caitlin Elftman Arts & Entertainment Contributor Published Nov 20, 2017 at 6:56 PM

Welcome to Eat, Play Applaud, a new OnMilwaukee series where we serve up a perfect pairing of dinner and a show – tied together by a common thread, both tasty and theatrical. Make your next night out in Milwaukee even more memorable!

There are few relationships in life as impactful as the relationship between a father and his children. Speaking on a personal note, the impression that my own exceptional father has had on me is impossible to appropriately put into words. I’ll always look back on my childhood memories with my dad with great fondness. I’ll never forget how he would colorfully narrate "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" to my sister and me before bed, or his ability, without fail, to have a bowl of macaroni and cheese ready for me when I got home from morning kindergarten (man, that was the life back then).  

As the years pass, our connection has only become more meaningful; it’s such a comfort to know that my dad and I are continuing to share experiences I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life.

This precious bond between father and child is often explored in the arts, but no matter how many times you see this relationship portrayed in movies, in books or on stage, it still strikes a deeply personal chord. Sometimes, these feelings are too powerful to deal with – let’s face it, it gets emotionally exhausting constantly watching movies or reading books that make you cry. But other times, it’s encouraged and even healthy to examine how the bond between you, the child, and your father figure has influenced you in order to fully appreciate that profound connection.

If you’re looking for a night on the town that honors the bond between you and your own father, or perhaps the relationship you have with your own children, Next Act Theatre has the ideal experience for you. And no night at the theater is complete without a meal beforehand.

Eat: Merriment Social

Remember when you were a kid, and your dad would take you out and treat you to a milkshake? Well, I shouldn’t assume; hopefully your father did that with you (food is, rightfully, one of my dad’s top priorities, so there were many trips to get malts in my childhood). Or think back to the time when you had your first sip of alcohol with him, both of you acknowledging with pride and excitement your transition into adulthood.

Moments like these will loom large in your subconscious as you step into a Milwaukee favorite, Merriment Social. The playful, energetic vibe is immediately apparent upon entry; it’s the kind of place you’d envision taking your father to honor the relationship you had with him growing up while still appealing to the current relationship you have with him as an adult. So Dad, if you’re reading this, remind me to take you here in the very near future.

Merriment Social believes in high quality, approachable food for all ages, and it’s evident in each of its upscale casual menu offerings. For first timers, go for the unbeatable Merriment burger or the Red Hot Fried Chicken – plus start out with the fried Brussels sprouts. Trust me, these aren’t the Brussels sprouts you were force-fed as a kid. If you and your dad really mean business during your meal together at Merriment Social, give one of its "Punch for Two" options a try. The more you drink, the easier it will be to confront him about your annoying early curfew in high school.

So, with a belly full of Brussels sprouts and a mind full of childhood memories, it was time to head to the theater to see an entirely different side to the father and child dynamic.

Play: Next Act's "The Secret Mask"

(PHOTO: Ross Zentner)

I think I’ve made it pretty apparent that I have a great bond with my family. That being said, I’m not naïve enough to think that every relationship between parent and child is centered on nightly bedtime stories or trips to an ice cream parlor. In fact, if you take just a two-minute walk from Merriment Social – yes, I timed it – and brave the November cold, you’ll see a relationship between a father and son on the Next Act stage that is far from perfect.

The company is currently taking on the U.S. premiere of Rick Shafe’s emotionally charged "The Secret Mask." This drama revolves around George and his father Ernie – and without giving too much away, their relationship is strained to say the least. But after Ernie suffers a stroke, George has no choice but to help his father through the slow and difficult process of recovery. In this case, the recovery that occurs is far more than physical, as both men must mend old wounds by evaluating the past and determining their place in each other’s futures. Word of the wise: bring tissues to this one – you’ll thank me later.

For a good portion of the profoundly moving show, these are two characters that have nothing in common. But sometimes, although it initially seems that unlike things can’t come together, when combined, they complement each other perfectly.

As I watched "The Secret Mask," I had an instant flashback to the Swayze Train Burger I just enjoyed at Merriment Social. It was a meal I certainly took a risk on; the combination of pepper jack cheese, maple bacon, onion rings, roadhouse sauce and hot pepper cream cheese seemed like an intimidating combination. But once I opened my mind and gave it a try, these ingredients composed the perfect bite of burger.

Similarly, can George and Ernie, two men who are stark contrasts of one another, put their differences aside and find not only common ground, but a shared future as well? You’ll just have to see the show for yourself and find out. And afterwards, I’d recommend giving your dad a call and telling him you love him.

No matter how you articulate your personal relationship with your father, this evening out in Milwaukee is the perfect dedication to dads everywhere. Want to treat your dad to a night out in the Brew City? This is a two-pronged culinary and theatrical excursion I couldn’t recommend more.

Visit Merriment Social, a place where you’d be proud to share a burger and a pint with your old man, at 240 E. Pittsburgh Ave., while performances of "The Secret Mask" continue at Next Act Theatre, located at 255 S. Water St., now through Dec. 10.

Caitlin Elftman Arts & Entertainment Contributor
A proud Wisconsin native, Caitlin Elftman is always up for a night on the town in the Brew City. If you ever need someone to catch a play or a concert with, or a friend to check out the latest Milwaukee restaurant opening, she's your gal!

Caitlin is also a lover of international travel, makes a mean risotto and knows every Neil Diamond and Celine Dion song you could throw at her.