“Unity (1918)”; the influenza epidemic & Canada Reply

The First World War ended on November 11th, 1918. Hundreds of thousands of troops were demobilized and returned home carrying a virus that ultimately killed millions world-wide. Kevin Kerr’s play – Unity (1918) is about the reality of war, sickness (the Spanish flu), and other’s perceptions. The small town of Unity, Saskatchewan is set on not letting the sickness take over its small town. To Unity, the war is the Spanish Flu. Ironically with the loss of Mary’s (Jackie Mahoney) fiancé in the war, who died as a result of the flu, reality starts to set in within Unity.  Photo by William Innes

Abbi Longmire; Mollie Garrett & Jackie Mahoney suffering the 'flu in UNITY

Abbi Longmire; Mollie Garrett & Jackie Mahoney suffering the ‘flu in UNITY

With the arrival of the blind soldier Hart played by Sam Beuerle who is also the unknown cousin of Sunna (Sam Mercury), Unity starts to worry and the flu has affected the town, but not because of the soldier.
Focusing on the blind soldier and Mollie Garret’s ‘Beatrice’ for a few moments; Hart, the soldier, believes he went blind seeing a prostitute naked and he sees Beatrice as the angel that fell from heaven (his perception). Beatrice, the eternal pessimist attempting to believe Glenn will return from war, starts to face the reality that death is happening and there is nothing she can do about it. Being the care giver for her sisters while their father is away, makes her load seem heavy. Alas, in the end, the angel returns to heaven.
Sunna is an odd sort; in my opinion she blocks out the negative aspects of life by being an undertaker. After burying her uncle, a new mother and her baby and many other town people, reality has found a way into her thoughts and she has to leave to go back to Iceland.
Director Andy Houston makes excellent use of simple and symbolic, front stage and background performed by the actors. The incorporation of chairs at the end of the stage and focused lighting, allowed all performers to be on the stage and add to the background as needed through the main storyline. There was much to see and hear to support that main storyline. Let us not forget the “ugly” socks, which were knitted by Beatrice, giving hope to one particular soldier who finally returns home from the war via the train.
For the first 5 minutes, we found ourselves wondering if the lack of emotion was just under-developed acting skills but I quickly realized the importance of the somber tone of Sunna, or the excited-ness of Michael (Erik Van Dicjk), or the purposefully slow walking. Many of these subtle actions did not weave into the whole until later in the first act; however, by the second act, they created a strength of understanding of all the characters. This tone become so strong that when, in the second act, Sunna smiles or moves faster, it becomes a small but dramatic event.
Lastly, Kudos to those that came up with the idea of having the ushers and greeters wear face masks to protect themselves from the flu and the decorations, all of which set the tone for the play before it even started. Overall, an excellent presentation of a story which won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama in 2002.

UNITY (1918) is at the University of Waterloo –( Uwaterloo Theatre and Performance) until Nov. 22nd.   Review by Brett & Marion Davis


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