This week, Unity 1918, written by Kevin Kerr and directed by Samantha Wilson, is being performed at Mount Allison’s Motyer Fancy theatre. Set in the small Canadian town of Unity, SK, the play addresses the effects of the First World War on residents and the incoming threat of the Spanish Influenza.
I sat down with two of the play’s nine cast members, third-year English major Jena McLean and fourth-year honours English student Victoria Valliere, to discuss their roles as sisters in the upcoming production.
“The play is set through [my character] Bea’s journal,” McLean said. This frames all of the play’s events, from the threat of illness, to a push for progression, to potential romance.
Valliere’s character is a free spirit who falls in love. “My character is fourteen and a feminist. [She] comes home from a visit to the city and wants to change everything up,” Valliere said. McLean’s character looks out for a her little sister and writes about her actions and the events that unfold throughout the play.
With over 20 million mortalities, the Spanish Influenza killed more people – most between the ages of 18 and 40 – than WWI. “[It was] the youth of the town, the young and the healthy, who fell ill,” Valliere said.
“The themes [in the play] seem like they’re [dated] by one hundred years, but they are not. [Our characters] might be fighting things that we cannot understand, but something like this could happen now and the lives we know could totally stop,” Valliere said. “They’re all fighting for connection. They’re all fighting to survive and to get whatever they can out of life. I think that we’re all doing that.”
The production is constructed to make the audience feel as though they are part of the production itself. “The theatre is like a coffin, the floor is a wooden rectangle and there are black curtains behind the audience. [We want] to create a claustrophobic [environment so] that [the audience members] cannot get away from the sickness on the stage.”
The setting, in time and place, has the potential to make the play both ominous and oppressive. However, Valliere said that this is not the case.
Although based on a dark chapter of history, she emphasized the occasional moments of humour that break the play’s heaviness.
“It’s incredibly funny, there’s so much humour,” Valliere said. “[We’ve been told by our director to] play to the light and not to go to the dark – it’s already there.”
“We’re not playing to the tragedy,” McLean said. “I think the biggest thing that makes this show relevant this year was that at our first read-through, our director wanted to look at the transition from ‘love thy neighbour’ to ‘fear thy neighbour.’”
Unity is a real Canadian town. Kennedy Lundberg, one of the cast members in the production, is from Saskatchewan and contacted the town to say that members of the Mt. A community were putting on the production. The town was so excited by this news that “they sent us a postcard of what the street looked like in 1910,” McLean said.
Both McLean and Valliere are excited for opening night.
“There’s a very intense passion for what we’re doing,” McLean said. Valliere emphatically agreed and encouraged students to come and enjoy the performance.
The show runs from Wednesday, Jan. 8, to Saturday, Jan. 11, at 8:00 p.m. and costs $10 for general entrance, or $5 for students and seniors. Thursday night is pay-what-you-can.