Unity and fear in the Prairies

The Department of Drama and Speech Communication staged <em>Unity (1918)</em>, a period adaptation of a play written by Kevin Kerr. The play , which took place from Nov. 18-Nov. 21, was directed by Andy Houston and starred UW actors like Mollie Garret, Sam Beuerle, and Emma Mann in some of the most endearing roles that the Theatre of the Arts stage has seen.&nbsp;</p>

Set in the small town of Unity, Saskatchewan, the play brings the forgotten Spanish influenza epidemic to life in the context of the First World War. The plot begins with an introduction to the Wilde sisters, Beatrice (Mollie Garrett) and Sissy (Abbi Longmire), and their friend Mary (Jackie Mahoney). The girls are shown to be discussing a variety of topics, like the war which is nearing its end, cute farm boys, soldier beaus, and the war efforts which apparently keep the ones at the front going. Performing in a strange backdrop of violence and disease, the characters progress throughout the play from the epistolary filter of Beatrice’s diary. The town experiences a number of deaths, but the reason remains unknown; however, as the number of deaths increase alarmingly, they get linked to the returning First World War soldiers who are reputedly bringing this epidemic back from the front. Within the course of minutes, the entire pace of the play accelerates. 

Everybody becomes cautious and suspicious of each other and fears the spread and contraction of this deadly disease. The town transforms before our very eyes into a hysteric frenzy where lovers are prevented from being together and last letters from dead fiancés are burned so as to protect the residents of the community from Spanish flu. 

As the town tries in futility to quarantine themselves, the devastating plague sweeps in and strikes down the young in their prime. In fact, more people died of this epidemic than were killed in battle throughout the war — as people fall like ninepins, the work of the gravedigger Sunna (Sam Mercury) becomes a lucrative business. On the side, the audience is made privy to the unrequited love stories of Mary, Sissy, and Beatrice, all affected by the pandemic in a heartbreaking way. And that of Stan and Ardelle (Cameron Smith and Brooke Barnes), another couple affected by the brutality of this disease. 

As the play continues, some of the most charming characters that the audience begins to love fall prey to death. We know something is really wrong when the telephone operators on centre stage become sick and Michael (Erik Van Dijk), dies in the surreal background. 

Unity descends into chaos and no one trusts each other anymore. Several questions come to mind: Who will live and who will die? What is going to happen? The final culmination doesn’t answer many of these questions but leaves the audience to come to their own conclusions. 

One of the best features of the play was its engagement with and representation of life and death on stage. Following the physical theatre elements of Ankoku Butoh, which captures the liminal experience between life and death which existed in Japan after the Second World War, the stage was divided into two parts: one representing life and the present and the other representative of the timelessness of death. This was done to offer insight into how difficult our everyday decisions are and how we are sometimes scared to die. 

For the director Andy Houston, despite pertaining to a particular issue in the medical history of a small town, the story poses important questions relevant to any community in Canada today. According to Houston, “Canadians in 2015 may not be confronting the world’s worst flu pandemic but we are definitely facing some significant problems: climate change, financial instability, security and gender, race, and freedom to name a few.” 

Houston believes that fear and unity have a unique relationship: “Our federal election demonstrated that our political leaders are capable of using fear as a tactic to gain unity around a certain problem.” 

In terms of its relevance, Houston considers Unity to be an important play for our times because it invites us to embrace the life-affirming qualities that theatre offers. He hopes that this play compels us to explore why we create community. 


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