by Mike Poblete · August 7, 2015
Alexandra Perlwitz, Jessi Blue Gormezano | Russ Rowland
In the autumn of 1918, the town of Unity, Saskatchewan was limping along during World War I; with most of the men gone to war, the women were left to take over the critical town roles. The sisters Beatrice and Sissy jump at the news that a soldier is due to arrive off the train, a piece of the war finally returning to them. Bringing makeshift bouquets of wheat, the girls find not one of their own but a stranger: Hart, who was blinded by mustard gas in France, has come to Unity for the first time to be reunited with his long estranged father, the funeral home director. But his father has recently passed, and he instead finds his curt Icelandic cousin Sunna, who now runs the mortuary. Little do they know how much the death business is about to boom.
The Spanish Flu strikes: a now little remembered pandemic that infected 500 million people worldwide from 1918-1919, killing almost ten percent of its victims, the deadliest disease in modern history. Canada, who had a high percentage of its population serving in the war, was badly hit when the soldiers brought the disease home, in the end losing more people to illness than to combat. Fear, suspicion and makeshift quarantines grip the ill prepared town at the end of the war, just when they thought their nightmare was to end.
The first resident of Unity to catch the flu, a farm boy, is sent home to his family to look after him. Except his family already had succumbed, so he just rides the train back and forth, futilely hoping Unity will let him back, until the train porters wrap up his remains in a blanket and dump him like garbage. Sunna picks up the body, “and Sissy cried – the boy she loved was now in the arms of another woman.”
Yet there’s a lot of playfulness in Kevin Kerr’s haunting and gothic script, winner of the Canadian Governor General’s Award For Drama: Hart’s wit in blindly assisting in Sunna’s stoic funeral responsibilities helps make the loss of key characters a routine of transcendence, and sometimes humor. In one sequence he breaks several jars of fluid, and afraid of getting in trouble, coaches himself, “Okay! Let’s get our story straight. Cat snuck in, did cat things, blind man sat helplessly by. Don’t blame the blind.” When the town holds a Victory Day dance to welcome their soldiers home, the elated teenagers dance happily together…three feet apart, to prevent infection. Later on when Sunna rescues a scythe from rusting in the rain, Sissy believes she is the grim reaper coming for her and defends herself with a hand carved wooden dildo.
KJ Sanchez has also softened the horror by directing the piece with surprising and effective whimsy: a score is created from mostly found objects, such as boxes of matches to invoke the sounds of a moving train and farm chores; dulcet singing smooths periodic transitions; and Kenton Yeager’s lighting design, echoing Hart’s limited visibility with a dark stage strategically illuminated by lanterns, creates a flow that compliments the charismatically antiquated diary entry storytelling structure. Sanchez made surprisingly good use of the Gene Frankel Theatre, a lovable but rigid space, using every door, staircase and landing to shape the town. The acting ranges from capable to strong, with a standout performance from Joe Jung as Hart. The exuberance and bereavement of all the teenagers are channeled well, and the fear and dread of characters major and minor are palpable.
At the end, when a lead character dies and is movingly cleaned by Sunna while dreamily finding a way to the next world, I found myself wondering what I was to take home from a play about such hideousness crafted with a graceful hand. Then a surprising and rousing musical curtain call brought the themes home: I had witnessed the untold story of one of the most unlikely wars fought in North America, a war in many ways more of ideology and fear than biology, and the strength that can be found under incredible circumstances. Unity (1918) is simultaneously engaging and subtle, provocative and folksy, and most of all a fascinating story executed with charming theatricality.