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'Unity (1918)': a Pandemic Horror Romance Tale

Kevin Kerr’s moving play about the horrors of the Spanish flu makes its American debut.

Photo by Russ Rowland

The horrors, tragedies and uplifting moments of strength of the First World War have been well-documented in works of art, literature and theater. Less often examined, however, is the other great terror of 1918, far more deadly than the war in Europe: the Spanish flu. A particularly deadly strain of influenza, the disease made its way from the battlefields to small towns around the world, and soon the people left behind while their young men went to war had their own battle to fight.

This is the subject matter of Kevin Kerr's Unity (1918), the story of a small Canadian town that is already suffering from a lack of doctors and strong young men to work on the farms when rumors of the new disease come flooding in. And as the traces of illness come closer and closer to rural Saskatchewan, attempts to evade it grow ever more irrational, from refusing to let trains stop in town to wearing plague masks, proselytizing about the end of the world and even burning the mail so that no trace of the germs can come through. But despite their best efforts, the flu touches down in Unity, and we witness the immense capacity of people to just go on living when there is simply no other choice.

An ensemble show with a strong emphasis on women's stories (logical in a wartime world where all the men have gone off to war), Unity (1918) is narrated from the perspective of a proper young woman, Beatrice, whose diligent diary entries capture the wide array of perspectives about the war and the flu present in the town. Though we see this world through the eyes of an upright citizen, the play shows compassion for both her traditional views and for troublemakers such as her sister Sissy, preaching about the end of days and women's sexual liberation, or the new female undertaker, Sunna, taking on a gruesome job no one else is able or willing to.

The true terror of Unity, however, is not the rapid proliferation of corpses in all their gruesome detail so much as the total lack of understanding of what is causing the disease or how to prevent it. As telephone operators Rose and Doris stick letters in the oven to burn off the germs, insist on the town wearing masks to prevent the spread of illness and argue with farmers about the possibility of catching it over the phone, you cannot help but to draw parallels to other modern epidemics, and the societal paralysis they create when annihilation seems all but inevitable.

Yet despite everything, a thread of hope remains throughout the piece, even as the audience struggles to keep track of which characters are still alive. Love is always paramount, whether between sisters, friends, the boys on the front and the girls back home or the widower and the undertaker. Even if one partner never appears onstage, these relationships are touching and heartfelt, and sometimes when the man of her dreams does return home after all, heartbreaking.

Project: Theater's production, directed by KJ Sanchez, is a smart, polished piece, featuring a versatile set in which coffins can easily become beds and vice versa, and the uniformity of a small rural town can always be felt. The entirely live sound design and innovative use of the multi-level performance space keeps the audience surprised throughout, while the centrality of the particular technologies of 1918—telephones with live operators, telegraphs, trains and farm machinery—bring the era to life. And nothing captures the eerie, gothic feeling of the play so much as Beatrice's fantastically detailed and truly spooky dream sequences.

The ensemble cast of Unity (1918) gives universally strong performances, creating an entire town and an entire nation out of just nine performers. Jessi Blue Gormezano's performance as the strong but compassionate Beatrice is the lynchpin that holds the production together, while Beth Ann Hopkins as distant Icelandic mortician Sunna provides an element of mystery and hard beauty to this town of silly rural Canadian accents. Joshua Everett Johnson's tortured widower Stan and Joe Jung as the blind and orphaned but rather lackadaisical war veteran Hart, meanwhile, remind us how even the men left at home during the war have their own struggles and their own form of helplessness.

As was the case in history, eventually the flu ends, having taken a very heavy toll on the most vulnerable of communities. And yet, life goes on, and that sense of continuation is felt even when the emotional arc of an entire pandemic is compressed into just two hours. Though not adapted directly from a primary text such as the diary Beatrice writes in, Unity (1918) nonetheless has a sense of preservation and historical veracity about it, an educational as well as an intriguing artistic experience.

At times sentimental, darkly comic or just simply dark, this play certainly presents a story that is well worth hearing. We are not so far away from 1918 as we might like to think.

Unity (1918) plays at the Gene Frankel Theatre through August 23.

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