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). Previews Friday-Sunday (April 23-25) and Monday (April 27), opens Wednesday (April 28) and runs to May 16, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2:30 pm. $25-$34, Sunday pwyc-$16, April 30 gala $125. 416-504-7529. Rating: NNNNN
Don't tell actor Tracy Michailidis that her latest show, Unity (1918), is simply a costume drama set in a small Canadian prairie town at the end of the first world war. It was a time when Spanish flu attacked the population and people wore masks hoping for protection. Sound familiar?
Last year, during the SARS crisis, Michailidis and her family visited a hospital and were shortly after quarantined in their home.
"We learned that fear is as much an enemy as the disease itself," says the talented Michailidis, talking about the play and sipping an extra-hot chai latte with fellow performer Ngozi Paul.
"Unity is such a timely play, not only because of the devastating illness but also because it came when a war was going on overseas."
A Governor General's Award-winning script by Vancouver-based Kevin Kerr, the piece takes place over six weeks in the lives - and deaths - of the townspeople of Unity, an hour west of Saskatoon.
Young women dream of their lovers returning as heroes from the Great War, telegraph and telephone operators spread town gossip, farmers deal with difficult times. And approaching them without their knowledge is the Spanish flu, which attacked the young and healthy and killed more Canadians in four weeks than died in four years of European fighting.
At the centre of the piece is Michailidis's character, Beatrice, whose diary entries let us into both the world of the play and her own thoughts.
"When you write a diary you document your life but also revise it with how you write something down," notes the actor, who's equally strong in musicals (Songs For A New World) and straight scripts (Mary's Wedding).
"Bea comes to realize that she's a stranger to herself. Who she thought she was dissolves when the community unravels. Everything she believed to be true turns out to be different."
Paul's Sunna is the play's outsider. Thrust into the role of town undertaker when her uncle dies suddenly, she's initially an emotionally armoured figure.
Sunna, a self-defined outcast, is an Icelandic woman who's come to Canada. Director Chris Abraham's selection of Paul to play her is a fine example of choosing the best actor for the part - something that should happen more often in theatre.
"I made a joke on the first day of rehearsal," she recalls with a laugh. Paul brings electricity to all her roles, whether it's the young Nelson Mandela (In The Freedom Of Dreams) or a troubled black woman whose lighter-skinned sister gets preferential treatment ('Da Kink In My Hair). "I said that that I understood Sunna's character right away. There I was, the only black person with 29 white people in the room.
"But being an outsider is the important part of Sunna, whether she's from Iceland or the Ivory Coast. She's like a lot of first-generation Canadians who are trying to build a country, whether it's 1918 or 2004, without pretending it's something that it's not."
Playwright Kerr has a great ear for dialogue, moving from the monosyllabic to the poetically lyrical in a few phrases and blending the speakers' voices into the kind of overlapping speech that happens all the time in real life.
"Chris compares each character to a musical instrument," adds Michailidis, "with some scenes like duets. In a couple of episodes, those instrumental voices all come together into a chord, though sometimes it's a dissonant chord. As in life, sometimes the instruments are playing out of tune with each other."
Both women are musical performers and both have worked as producers as well as onstage. They're equally adamant about the need to create passionate art that means something beyond a paycheque.
"I began producing because there weren't enough stories about black people," explains Paul for both of them. "Get out and validate yourself, I tell artists. It's about sharing, which is why we tell stories in the first place. Otherwise you're just hired, not driven."