Red Deer College theatre studies students have dug deep via a solid set of performances in unveiling the dramatic richness of Unity (1918), running through Oct. 16 in Studio A.
There is also a matinee on Oct. 16.
Described as a ‘gothic, romantic and dark comedy’, the production, wonderfully directed by Tanya Ryga, sheds light on a little known era in Canadian history.
Written by Kevin Kerr, Unity (1918) is set in the town of Unity, Saskatchewan in the fall of 1918. You can feel the fear settling over the townsfolk as the First World War rages on and the threat of the Spanish flu epidemic sweeping the nation creeps closer.
Poignant drama, with splashes of unexpected humour, unfold through the nature of the mix of characters and it’s all told from the perspective of the hardworking, ever-practical Beatrice (Sarah Hemphill).
Just 21, Beatrice is relied on by pretty much everyone to keep things running. But she’s got her own dreams and hopes as well, and Hemphill does a fantastic job of balancing the nuances of Beatrice’s complex character. She can be tough, fearless and determined, but also heartbroken and disillusioned. Hemphill captures it all with a captivating performance which ultimately anchors the story.
Her friend Mary (Jillian Tallas) longs for her soldier lover who is at war in Europe. Tallas portays the part really well, as the fragile Mary is so caught up with hopes for a future with her man she seems scarcely aware of the turmoil around her at times.
Then there’s Beatrice’s sister Sissy (Lisa Daniels). Feisty, firey and loads of fun, Sissy throws a twist on all the doom and gloom, opting to look at it as the ‘end of days’ which she expects in 1918. Daniels is a delight to watch — daring, funny and crushed in spirit when the part calls for it.
Sissy even declares herself and her boyfriend Michael (Jordan Bartsch) the last man and woman on earth, and Bartsch does a great job capturing the energy and spirit of young Michael.
Also outstanding is Katie Orsten as the town’s undertaker, a 15-year-old named Sunna. She landed the job suddenly after the death of her uncle, but takes it on with dignity and courage. Orsten handles the mysterious nature of Sunna beautifully. As the play moves along, we understand this troubled young woman better, and the constant sense of alienation she feels as she tries to keep up with her task of burying the dead in an increasingly hostile environment.
Meanwhile, Doris and Rose (Ileia Goode and Nicole Dundys) play the telegraph operators with lots of energy and sparkle. Stan, the lonely farmer (Nate Rehman) lost his wife early in the story due to childbirth, and some of the play’s most heart-wrenching moments are when he transports her body (played so well by Nevada Banks) for burial.
Stan is lost and broken, and doesn’t know where to turn with a newborn baby to care for on top of it all. Rehman conveys Stan’s struggle exceptionally well.
Finally, along comes Hart (John Dyck), a blind soldier from Halifax. Hart is a kind, generous soul and kind of a bright spot in spite of what he’s experienced. But he initially brings much life and hope to this weary set of characters, and Dyck is ideal for the part.
Unity (1918) is a vivid reminder of the horrors that people have had to endure in other eras, and how, on some levels, those battles are similar to what people face today. Ultimately, strength for the folks in Unity comes from connecting to others – even when it’s not the option some would choose. Obviously it’s not always an easy play to watch, but there’s something compelling and charming about it, too – even though the threat of death and loss are never far away.
Ryga has brought out so much in her cast, and the shifting moods of the play, from despair to happiness are captured nicely through Greg Stafford’s striking lighting design and Kalon McClarty’s stark but extremely effective set. Donna Jopp has also done a terrific job with the costumes.
For tickets, call 403-340-4455, visit www.ticketmaster.ca or www.rdc.ab.ca/showtime.