Hope and heartbreak, circa 1918

In the midst of war and disease, Unity (1918) announces the triumph of human emotion

Kevin Kerr’s Unity (1918) tells the story of a small town faced with the double-edged trauma of First World War and the Spanish flu epidemic.
Image by: Lindsay Duncan
Kevin Kerr’s Unity (1918) tells the story of a small town faced with the double-edged trauma of First World War and the Spanish flu epidemic.

Most would agree that a story about the Spanish flu pandemic isn’t exactly the stuff comedy is made of. But Unity (1918), staged by Queen’s Drama Department and directed by Tim Fort, manages to inject both humour and hope into a grim story of the ravages of war and disease.

The play, which won author Kevin Kerr a Governor General’s award, focuses on a town in Saskatchewan forced to deal with the blows of the First World War and the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, which killed tens of millions of people around the world. The story centers on the character of Beatrice, played by Danielle Kostrich, who tries to deal with the growing sense of foreboding in Unity with a sensible and serene nature. She’s supported and challenged by two sisters, played by Shea Wood and Hallae Khosravi, as well as numerous townspeople who intersect in vignette-like scenes anchored by Beatrice’s regular diary-entry soliloquies.

The subject matter could make for a thoroughly depressing showcase of the harsh realities of the world, but the show manages to avoid such a fate due in equal parts to the script and deft performances by the cast.

The first act, which takes place largely before the flu arrives, is surprisingly lighthearted and enjoyable—aside from the looming presence of the war—but it’s ultimately the more problematic of the two acts. Though Danny Mahoney, as a wounded soldier, and Kat Sandler, as a peculiar undertaker, command any scenes they appear in with their charming and funny performances, the anticipation of their appearances causes other scenes to drag.

This is due in large part to the structure of the play, which shifts locations within the town and rarely features the same characters in consecutive scenes. Beatrice’s soliloquies are meant to tie the play together, but Kostrich’s subtle performance doesn’t really hit its stride until the more somber second act.

In the second act much of the initial humour is lost, but the sense of humanity each actor brings to their character remains. The cast skillfully portrays the sadness and the hope that accompanies human struggle, deftly navigating a play that addresses the personal meaning of death and consequently asks for a great deal of emotion from the actors.

Sadler’s formerly removed and oddball character suffers a great loss in one of the most touching scenes in the play, but it’s Kostrich’s quiet grace in particular that hits all the right notes and makes the final scenes both hopeful and heartbreaking. Though the play draws its strength from its performances, the cast is supported wonderfully by Roslyn Green and Chad Yacobucci, a fiddle and guitar duo that composed original music for the play. They enter and exit the stage as troubadours, underscoring the farm-town setting and emotional range of Unity (1918). Their presence is particularly welcome in the town square dance scene, where they manage to create a buoyant atmosphere of celebration in the midst of the flu epidemic, and in the final scene, where they and the cast offer an affecting musical benediction. Additionally, the set, designed by Tim Fort, presents a grandiose use of the Rotunda Theatre. Two building structures and the stage floor are constructed largely out of lumber, while telephone wires—which play an important role in the plot—reach above the audience and give the set a sense of depth. The back wall is painted white to suggest the vastness of the Saskatchewan landscape and period-appropriate knick-knacks and furniture complete the look. The set exudes a rustic charm, though the wooden floors make for loud and awkward scene changes.

In the end, Unity (1918) belongs to the cast who embody their characters lives and emotions with ease. We recognize their humanity—whether it’s in their humour, perseverance or grief—even as they stare death in the face.

Unity (1918) is playing at the Rotunda Theatre tonight and tomorrow night at 8 p.m. and from Wednesday, March 5 until Saturday, March 8 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $8 for students and $12 for general admission, and are available at the Drama department office and Destinations.

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