UNITY (1918) by Kevin Kerr, directed by Chris Abraham, with Anne Anglin, Nancy Beatty, Claire Jenkins, Tracy Michailidis, Ngozi Paul, Josh Peace, Peter Smith, Tova Smith and Greg Spottiswood. Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson). Runs to May 16, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2:30 pm. $25-$34, Sunday pwyc-$16. 416-504-7529. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Kevin Kerr's unity (1918) shows what happens when the Spanish flu epidemic hits a small Saskatchewan town in the last few weeks of the first world war. Equal parts gallows humour and period charm, the script resists easy categorization. Despite the subject matter, it's not an indictment of small-town paranoia or prejudice, though those themes are present. Neither is it about the resilience of the human spirit, another easy route to go. It's closer to an existential meditation, which makes it thoughtful and profound but not exactly gripping or moving.
The minimal plot concerns the effects of the flu and the war on the townspeople, including the diary-writing Beatrice ( Tracy Michailidis ), her doomsday-spouting sister Sissy ( Claire Jenkins , in a nice turn), and the hard-working Icelandic immigrant Sunna ( Ngozi Paul ). The appearance of blinded soldier Hart ( Greg Spottiswood ), Sunna's cousin, adds texture to the play.
The character of Hart - jaded, mordantly funny - is also the most complicated and fascinating, and Spottiswood wisely underplays it, knowing how good his lines are. He becomes the wounded heart of the script. It's too bad the other characters aren't as rich, especially Beatrice, who ends up little more than a prairie version of one of the Little Women siblings.
Director Chris Abraham stages the play on a wide-open space at Passe Muraille. It feels as vast as a school auditorium at times, which suggests the openness and isolation of the prairies but also occasionally lets our focus wander.
And while Rick Hyslop offers some bold sound design choices, they don't always pay off.