Winner of the coveted Governor-General’s Award in 2002, Unity (1918) intertwines themes of sex and death in the Saskatchewan prairies in (you guessed it) 1918. None of this helped my boyfriend warm to the play when I informed him of its subject matter halfway down the traffic-clogged QEW during rush hour. I’m sure I caught some form of obscenities muttered under his breath, but I digress.
Luckily for me, the play turned out to be a fabulous diamond in the rough. Set near the end of the World War I, Unity (1918) opens with a devastating flu epidemic sweeping through the prairies, and the play follows the tale of a small town’s struggle with this tragedy. An intriguing blend of black humour, poetry, loss, and heartbreak characterize this soon-to-be Canadian classic. The audience was easily drawn into the lives of the Unity townspeople-into the same web of fear, love, and hate that threaten to consume their small community.
The basic plot of Unity revolves around the lives of the homely but noble Beatrice (Ashley Hand), excellently depicted as a captivating homebody-someone to be both pitied and admired. Her sister is the sassy and rebellious Sissy-I alternated between wanting to cheer her on and resisting the urge to slap her upside the head. By far my favourite performance was by Laura Wombwell as Icelandic undertaker Sunna, who unquestionably stole the show with her morbid, disturbing, yet brilliant depiction of the lonely young girl. The arrival of Hart (Corey Doran), a wounded soldier returning from war to visit his only surviving relative (an already dead and embalmed father), adds richness to the performance in both the quality of the writing and the talent of the young actor depicting him.
Overall, the quality of the acting was a pleasant surprise. Theatre Erindale has managed to produce work of professional quality, which for a campus production is distinctly impressive. A particularly memorable scene in which one of the villagers tips his deceased wife out of a wheelbarrow accidentally only to be asked by Hart, “Drop something?” typifies the perverse humour of this play.
While I wouldn’t drive all the way to Mississauga in rush hour to see it a second time, I certainly am glad I did so the first time around (even if my boyfriend isn’t so sure). Thanks to Theatre Erindale for restoring my faith in Canadian drama with a memorable production of a future classic.