Welcome to Unity, Saskatchewan, where kissing, spitting, going to school and even opening the mail are banned. The year is 1918, and the small prairie town is in lockdown as WWI, the Spanish Influenza and the prophesy of an impending apocalypse wreak havoc on the terrified civilians.
This year’s Theatre & Film Studies Fall Major is an intense staging of Canadian playwright Kevin Kerr’s 2002 play, Unity (1918). This morbidly funny show revolves around the experiences of Beatrice Wilde and her two sisters, Mary and Sissy, as they come of age in such a complicated and perilous time. While they mourn the absence and loss of their young men – and love interests – to a violent war overseas, their lives are irrevocably interrupted by the contagious and lethal Spanish flu. One by one they receive notice of men being killed in Europe; one by one the people of their town fall in an equally devastating slaughter. This frightening moment for Unity and greater Canada was a significant – albeit overlooked – moment in Canadian history.
“In McMaster’s anniversary year, I wanted to find a play about Canadian history. Kerr’s play was attractive because it takes such an interesting perspective on a key period of Canada’s development as a nation,” said Theatre & Film professor and program director Peter Cockett.
Indeed, one in six people are believed to have fallen ill with the Spanish flu during the fall and winter of 1918-19 in Canada, and over 50,000 of them died. This made the period a devastating one in Canadian history – a topic tackled by the many classes involved with putting this show together.
The production process involved substantial research on the period, an extensive rehearsal process and the collaboration of summer class T&F 3PR3 Research and Planning, as well as fall classes T&F 3S03 Major Production Workshop and T&F 3PC3 Community Outreach, along with volunteers.
“The level of engagement from the students this year has been exemplary. They have come to the work with a passion to learn and a desire to understand the play, the characters and how it connects to our country’s history and our current historical moment,” Cockett commented. This history, as the audience will quickly realize, is much more heart-wrenching and violent than perhaps assumed.
Such dire circumstances leads some town youth, spearheaded by Sissy Wilde (played with distinction by the edgy Zoe Blenkinsop), to become convinced that the end of the world is coming – and soon. Her excitement about an impending apocalypse parallels the fuss surrounding contemporary predictions about December 2012, and creates a thematic thread that links old-fashioned characters with a modern audience. “I think these perennial apocalypses are always a good excuse to look at ourselves and our world and reflect on what we have achieved and what we would like to achieve,” Cockett observed.
With a two-and-a-half-hour running time, this black comedy is a tad wearing on audiences and not for the casual, commercial theatre-goer. However, strong performances by an emotionally dedicated cast keep the heavy material engaging. Special praise should be directed to Hannah Wayne for portraying the lead role of Beatrice Wilde with grace, sympathy and passion, and to Devin France for embodying the blind soldier Hart with respect, humour and emotional flexibility. The consistent presence of choreographed ghosts throughout the show also adds interest to a minimalist set.
Continuing the tradition of recent years, the Fall Major features a talkback sequence immediately following all performances. While most nights are student-directed talks with the audience about responses to questions the show raises, some nights this year are themed and feature input from specialized members of the McMaster community. Wednesday, Nov. 14 asked the question “Who Makes History?” Thursday, Nov. 15 focuses on healthcare issues, and Friday, Nov. 16 considers the “View from Anthropology.” These sessions provide a forum for unpacking the complicated material explored in the play and then making connections to our present-day lives.
“As always with our work in Theatre and Film Studies, we want our production to be the beginning of a dialogue rather than the end of a story,” Cockett said.
After a successful opening weekend, Unity (1918) continues this week at 7:30 p.m. until Saturday, Nov. 17. Tickets are $12 for students, $20 for regular admission and are available at the School of the Arts office (TSH 414 or by calling 905-525-9140 x24246) or at the door.