by Kevin Kerr
Memorial Hall, January 31- February 3, 2007
Kevin Kerr's Governor-General's Award winning Unity (1918) is so powerfully resonant for the society we're living in right now that I'm rather surprised that it's not being produced even more often than it is. In the director's note for his Theatre UNB production, Len Falkenstein observes that the play presciently anticipated the SARS outbreak (which, he points out, "sent images of masked Toronto commuters around the globe") and the global panic about avian flu. In the week of the production, St. Thomas was going through a minor panic about an "outbreak" of Norwalk virus -- or perhaps it was just a "Norwalk type" virus -- and students and faculty were being enjoined to wash their hands every ten minutes, not to touch doorknobs or other people, etc. (As a chunk of dialogue in the play goes: "Schools are closed." "No spitting, hacking, coughing or clearing throats to speak." "No kissing." "No public gatherings.")
What Kerr offers us is a sort of cross between Our Town and A Journal of the Plague Year: in a way, the main character of the play is actually the small prairie town of Unity, Saskatchewan. Our Stage Manager is Beatrice, who provides continuity and reflection by reading aloud as she composes her diary of the fall of 1918, when the influenza pandemic arrived and, coincidentally, the First World War -- which probably was a major reason for the rise and rapid spread of the "Spanish Flu" -- came to its celebrated but ultimately inconclusive end. Her diary chronicles the arcs of various character's lives through that momentous fall: her sister Sissy's fascination with prophecies of the end of the world (due, she says, in 1918) and with Michael, a local farmhand; Sunna, the fifteen year old Icelandic girl who takes over as the town's mortician after the death of her uncle, and whose stolid industry becomes a symbol of the pandemic stalking the town; Hart, the blinded soldier who arrives in town because the recently deceased mortician is his only relative; Stan, whose wife dies in childbirth as the play opens, and who spends the rest of the play trying to find a woman to help him cope with a declining farm and a helpless infant, who ultimately dies as well; and others, all of whom we see, or hear about, in fragmented and not always obviously connected scenes -- some of which are dreams, and which are not necessarily chronological, but rather a kind of montage of the life of the isolated town out on the Saskatchewan prairie.
The sheer size of the show, and the variety of locations in which things occur, pose immense challenges for a theatre company. As we've come to expect, Falkenstein and technical director Mike Johnston take the inhospitable space of Memorial Hall and radically reshape it to their own purposes, essentially ignoring its usual orientation and mixing audience space and acting space to create a world in which the audience is intermixed with the stage's action. For this occasion, they divided the audience in half, facing each other across a raised acting space which could serve as the town's main street or whatever else was needed; up on the main stage was the town Telephone and Telegraph office, where Doris and Rose, the operators, keep the town in touch with the world and with each other (a rickety set of telephone poles support an overhead line across the house, reminding us of that slender connection); down in the right-hand corner of the stage was a two-leveled space for Thorson's Funeral Chapel; and tucked in under the (unused) balcony, also to the right, was a space which could be Beatrice and Sissy's house. Thus part of the audience was tucked into the center of a large C of acting space, with much of the action occurring over their shoulders. Overhead, on the lip of the balcony, a projection screen alternated between surtitles of the play's sections ("Thorson's Funeral Chapel," "A Prophecy," "The War Effort") and photographs of Saskatchewan during the war, posters about the plague, and so forth. As is also often a characteristic of Falkenstein's productions, music plays a significant role; in this case a three-piece band, ensconced in the balcony, punctuated and reinforced the action with fiddle, guitar and banjo.
This is not comfortable theatre. The audience's attention constantly shifts from one space to another, lured by the lighting, the music, and -- most of all -- the actor's physical positions and actions; especially those sitting in the interior of the C need actually to turn their bodies to face the funeral parlor or Beatrice and Sissy's house, or the telegraph office, or to look up at the projection screen to see the playwright's framing of the scene we're watching -- "Michael," "Fear," Hallowe'en." The trick, for the company, is to make sure that the audience is always looking where you want them to be looking, without obviously manipulating their attention, and although this worked most of the time, there were enough pauses, when we didn't know exactly where we should be looking, to lower the temperature of the show and make us conscious of the difficulties. Occasionally we watched while characters struggled to get props out of the way, or waited for a actor to get from where she had to be in the last scene to where her next one was, and nothing happened elsewhere to distract our attention. At one point, the night I attended, a headless corpse wrapped in a bloody blanket sat up before the lights went down on the mortuary.
In spite of such occasional technical failings, Falkenstein's cast gave us a compelling, engaging evening of powerful theatre, making us think about issues like how people help each other -- or don't -- in times of such horrible stress, reminding us that rural life at the beginning of the twentieth century was, even without the war and the flu, a place of constant death and struggle (the mortician, Stan's wife Ardell and their baby, and the headless young man killed by a mower, are all the sort of encounters with death that these people are faced with anyway, and have learned to deal with). And almost all the play's relentless gallows humor -- the farting corpses, the spilling of Stan's dead wife out of a wheelbarrow at the train station, the telephone operators barricading themselves against the germs -- worked to make us feel even more strongly the resilience and courage it takes just to keep going in the face of such a life, and such deaths.
Among a range of solid, thoughtful, and focused performances from the ten-person cast, particularly strong were Shannon Mann as Sunna, the Icelandic mortician who wants only to save enough money to go back to Iceland ("I don't belong here. Nobody wants to do what I do. . . . I have to do my work. It's all I have. I'm saving money. I want to go home") and Amanda Spear as Beatrice. Her face, easily crumpling into fear or anguish, her startling stage presence, and her complete focus on the character's role in a scene -- commenting, engaging, now stepping back and commenting again -- held the production together. Her continuing presence helped us see all of it -- from the sexual and religious fantasies of the overwrought Sissy (played strongly, if perhaps somewhat stridently, by Emily Carter) to Beatrice's own powerful disappointment when she discovers that her own fantasy, that "her" soldier, Glen, will come home to marry her, is just as unrealistic -- as one coherent epic of disaster and survival.
Finally, because we've come to care about the three women, the final scene, in which Sunna is measuring Beatrice's body and Sissy, recovered from the flu through Beatrice's nursing, is reading Bea's last diary entry, transcends sentimentality and brings us a moment of real understanding as we hear the last entry, in which she recalls the scene we've just witnessed, as she nursed the dying Hart: "But for me the world is brighter than it's ever been before. I kissed a boy a few days back. I still feel him on my lips. He was very, very . . . " Sissy, realizing that's all there is, supplies the last word: "Lucky."