With thunder in the forecast, Two Planks and a Passion Theatre took Kevin Kerr’s Governor-General’s award-winning Unity (1918) indoors for a staged reading, its first “rain:” show of the season.
Usually the 6 p.m. Unity and 9.30 p.m. The Stranger By Fire would be performed outdoors at the Ross Creek Centre for the Arts near Canning, where the shows run to Sept. 4. (Two Planks Theatre | Ross Creek Centre for the Arts and Two Planks and a Passion Theatre (artscentre.ca)
However, even indoors, Kerr’s spooky play about the Spanish Flu cast its spell. The words and very fine acting swirl in your imagination to transport you to a different time and place but a time and place very similar to today in terms of plague, war, fire and fear of apocalypse. (Today the town website for Unity, with its population of 2573, is full of COVID-19 rules.)
Back in 1918, the farming community had only a few hundred people and Unity (1918) depicts a rural community – in a kind of gothic twist on Our Town – as seen through the eyes of the three Wilde sisters.
Bea and Mary eagerly anticipate the end of the First World War and a return to normal life as they pine for their beloved soldiers while the rebellious Sissy believes the world is about to end.
When word of a new killer disease arriving in Eastern Canada hits, the town closes itself off, taking pride – much like Nova Scotia did – in “staying safe.” Inevitably the Spanish Flu arrives creating chaos and conflict.
It’s easy to see why Sissy believes in an imminent apocalypse. The parallels of plague, fire and famine – Unity’s harvest is failing – are readily apparent to today.
Also uncanny is how Kerr’s 2000 work connects to COVID-19 in terms of masking, fear of the other, blame, panic and a lack of medical and scientific knowledge.
Micha Cromwell is excellent in the lead role of Bea, a passionate, proper young woman who narrates in the form of writing her diary. Still in a state of becoming, she dreams of marriage and children but also of life as a writer. Cromwell’s emotional and expressive range is wide and appealing in this fresh, utterly convincing portrayal.
Riel Reddick-Stevens is also superb as Sissy, a larger-than-life reckless, joyful character interested in sex and first love. She is fond of the young and enthusiastic Michael (the robust and engaging Henricus Gielis). The third sister Mary, well portrayed by Kiana Josette, longs for her overseas soldier.
Kerr combines comedy with the macabre and goes for a Shakespearean death toll in what is billed as a gothic romance as Bea connects on a soulful level with a blind soldier who is – surprisingly – jovial and a darkly comic character played in a wide range of emotion by Jeff Schwager.
Some of the side characters in the town are wonderful, in particular the two gossipy phone operators, played by Burgandy Code and Chris O’Neill in a wonderful duet of chatter, “um hms” and the sound of buzzers for incoming calls.
The mysterious undertaker’s daughter Sunna (Allison Moira Kelly), originally from Iceland, is marginalized as a working woman and a gravedigger and acts as a kind of seer. She attracts the eye of Stan (Ryan Rogerson), a farmer and widower.
As directed by Two Planks and a Passion Theatre’s artistic director Ken Schwartz, Unity (1918) moves along swiftly with great vitality and a good mix of darks and lights towards its unusual end. As written, the concluding scene between Bea and the blind soldier, while excellently acted, is odd and unconvincing – you’ll definitely be talking about it after the show.
The use of song, directed by Allen Cole, is very haunting and Jennifer Goodman’s costumes set the play firmly in 1919, suit the characters and are in a beautiful, muted palette.
I’ve heard The Stranger – billed as a fireside thriller, an Edwardian mystery and “a meditation on the nature of friendship” – is very good and hope to get to it later in the summer.
The plays run together Tuesday and Saturday nights. Unity (1918) alone is on 6 p.m. Wednesday and 2 p.m. Saturday. The Stranger by Fire alone is on 9.30 p.m. Thursday and Friday. (We ordered the pre-show picnic which was a delicious sausage or veggie roll with salad, choice of wine or other beverage and a divine intervention of a brownie.
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