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Unity (1918)

Theatre Review by Howard Miller

Joshua Everett Johnson, Joe Jung, Alexandra Perlwitz, Alicia Dawn Bullen, and Jessi Blue Gormezano
Photo by Russ Rowland
Imagine Our Town as seen through the eyes of Stephen King, and you'll have a pretty good picture of what to expect from Canadian playwright Kevin Kerr's Unity (1918), having its U.S. premiere at the Gene Frankel Theatre.

Death is no stranger to the residents of the small town of Unity, Saskatchewan in the fall of 1918. The undertaker has plenty to do making funeral arrangements for women who die in childbirth, children who succumb to diseases for which no vaccine yet exists, and farmhands who get tangled up in various pieces of equipment. But through a perfect storm of circumstances, death has seized an opportunity to settle in and place a stranglehold on one and all.

While it is a fictionalized account, Unity (1918) is no purely imagined fantasy/horror tale. When death settles in for a lengthy visit, it does so riding on the wave of 17 million military personnel and civilians who lost their lives in World War I, and on the incipient influenza pandemic that would ultimately leave behind an additional 50 million fatalities worldwide.

The play, produced by Project: Theater and directed by KJ Sanchez, takes place within a single month, from early October into November. The unfolding events are related largely through a diary that is being kept by Beatrice (Jessi Blue Gormezano), a woman who has barely entered young adulthood. As with any such diary, the story it tells provides a mix of everyday life, gossip, and the (mostly romantic) dreams, hopes, and aspirations of its writer —along with news about the creeping nightmare that is overtaking the town as the so-called "Spanish Flu" makes its way from home to home.

Over the course of the evening, we watch as the townspeople—who have been cut off from the rest of the region and left to their own devices—try to figure out what to do as sickness and death strike them and their neighbors. Should everyone wear masks? Should they ban "spitting, hacking, coughing or clearing throats"? Should they quarantine families as the infection hits? Should they burn the mail as it comes in? Can they find a scapegoat to blame?

In truth, a play about unmitigated death has inherent limitations. The playwright and the director handle the dilemma by allowing us to get to know the characters well enough for us to appreciate their individual personalities and quirks, yet resist manipulating us into weeping into our handkerchiefs.

They do this by infusing the action with many moments of absurd and dark humor: A farmer (Joshua Everett Johnson) who keeps dropping his wife's dead body as he pushes her in a wheelbarrow to the mortuary; a soldier (Joe Jung), blinded in the war, who makes light of his situation: "Time makes no difference to me," he says. "It's always just after dark." There are also a pair of comical busybody telephone operators (Wendy Bagger and Melanie Rey), and Beatrice's wild and independent younger sister (Alexandra Perlwitz), who is convinced they are all about to see the end of days as predicted in the Bible, and whose greatest wish is to live long enough to experience it.

Unity (1918) is an unusual play, the winner of Canada's Governor General's Award that is given for literary works of distinction. As much as anything, it is a collage of life in the isolated world of the Canadian prairie, where an ingrained sense of fatalism does not prevent people from secretly dreaming of escape to a better life. The strong cast of mostly experienced Equity actors, along with KJ Sanchez's imaginative direction, make for a worthy evening of theater about unconventional characters finding themselves in a world run amok.

Unity (1918)
Through August 23
The Gene Frankel Theatre, 24 Bond Street at Lafayette
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: SmartTix