In the fall of 1918, a world ravaged by World War I was blindsided by a mysterious and deadly plague. The "Spanish Flu" cut down not only the very young and very old, but people in the prime of their lives, killing far more than had been killed in battle during the war.
The small town of Unity takes drastic action. The town is under quarantine and the borders are sealed-no one can enter, no one can leave. Even mail from overseas is burned. When the disease descends despite their precautions, the town-folk of Unity have only each other to turn to - in terror and in hope and, amidst this apocalyptic landscape, when death is knocking at the door, perhaps even in love.
Part Gothic romance, part pandemic horror story, and infused with biting dark humor, Kevin Kerr's UNITY (1918) (winner of the Canadian Governor General's Award for Drama) is an epic chronicle of this remarkable chapter of human history.
The cast features Wendy Bagger; Alicia Dawn Bullen; Jessi Blue Gormezano (ReEntry at Actors Theater of Louisville and international tour); Doug Harris (We Are Animals series at HERE/The Brick Theater); Beth Ann Hopkins; Joshua Everett Johnson (The Farnsworth Invention, dir. Des McAnuff, at La Jolla Playhouse); Joe Jung (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson at the Public Theatre & Broadway; the Stephen King/John Mellencamp musical Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, Atlanta & tour; Steve Martin and Edie Brickel's Bright Star at the Old Globe); Alexandra Perlwitz (Occupation and Mangella with Project: Theater); and Melanie Rey (Bridge to Terabithia at the Kennedy Center).
The design team includes Douglas Clarke (scenic and costume design); Kenton Yeager (lighting design); and Alicia Bullen (prop design). The production stage manager is Marcus Denard Johnson.
The New York Times August 18, 2015 Review: In ‘Unity (1918),’ a Town Blindsided by Spanish Influenza Unity (1918)
Off Off Broadway, Drama, Play 1 hr. 50 min. Gene Frankel Theatre, 24 Bond St. 212-777-1767
By ANITA GATESAUG. 17, 2015
Unity 1918 Alexandra Perlwitz in this play about the Spanish flu, at the Gene Frankel Theater. Credit Russ Rowland
So much for genteel images of the 1918 Spanish flu. Kevin Kerr’s “Unity (1918)” can make any “Upstairs Downstairs” fan forget the tasteful expiration of James Bellamy’s febrile young wife in a grand bedroom at Eaton Place. “Unity,” having its United States premiere at the Gene Frankel Theater, is much more like a horror story. The flu killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide in less than two years. (AIDS has killed around 39 million, but over 34 years.)
Mr. Kerr’s play focuses on Unity, a small Canadian town where life is normal at the beginning. Three sisters of marriageable age giggle over the contents of a book about sex. One sister is also preaching about the end of the world, which, she has established mathematically, will take place in 1918. Residents await the return of the town’s young men from what we now call World War I. When a young wife dies in childbirth, two telephone operators gossip about whether it’s sad — or a blessing — that the baby survived.
As Act I ends, the town is quarantined; even mail can’t be delivered. As Act II begins, all of the characters are wearing surgical masks. Soon there seems to be no break between funerals, no time to mourn. The local doctor is too sick to care for anyone. One of the telephone operators falls ill, and soon there’s no phone service.
This production feels slightly too long, but it’s smoothly directed by KJ Sanchez and meets every challenge that a tiny, bare-bones theater presents. Evocative lighting and sound effects — some potently loud, some like music infected with noise — abound. The cast is uniformly strong, with one speech standing out: Joe Jung as Hart, who was wounded in battle, explains fervidly just how much he does not want to have war stories from the newspaper read to him.
The script finds considerable humor in these dark days. One character (Alexandra Perlwitz) is terrified that she’s going to die too soon and miss the end of the world.
“Unity (1918)” runs through Sunday at the Gene Frankel Theater in the East Village; 212-868-4444, smarttix.com.
A version of this review appears in print on August 18, 2015, on page C5 of the New York edition with the headline: A Worldwide Contagion, Felt Hard in a Small Town . Order Reprints| Today's Paper|Subscribe
Props running to a few lamps, a ubiquitous wooden coffin, a bloody body bag and little more are all that's needed to make a strong impression by Project: Theatre. The play the troupe's lending its all and then some is Kevin Kerr's Unity (1918), as ingeniously directed by KJ Sanchez. It's having a too-short run at the Gene Frankel Theatre.
Kerr focuses on Unity, a small Saskatchewan town, during the unhappy year when the world-wide-epidemic threatened at the same time as World War I soldiers damaged by mustard gas began to return. The playwright doesn't see much sunny in what is ultimately his paean to the country's resilient national spirit.
The characters to whom Kerr devotes his clear-eyed attention are three sisters--practical Beatrice (Jessi Blue Gormezano), sympathetic Mary (Alicia Dawn Bullen), willful Sissy (Alexandra Perlwitz)--young, tough-minded undertaker Sunna (Beth Ann Hopkins), local telephone operators/gossips Rose (Wendy Bagger) and Doris (Melanie Rey) and the men in their increasingly circumscribed lives. These include, among others, mustard-gas-blinded Hart (Joe Jung) and locals like recent widower Stan (Joshua Everett Johnson), and gentle Michael (Doug Harris).
The action, narrated by Beatrice reading from her diary, barely covers six weeks of the fateful time (October 15 to November 28), but there's no end of generally sad developments. Fearing the arrival of the unforgiving influenza and the war's outcome for the village's young enlisted men, the Unity citizens see their worst fears inexorably materialize.
Kerr spreads his concentration around smoothly, although perhaps the most intriguing figure is 14-year-old Sunna, who comes by her grueling and mounting work at the death of her undertaker father. Accused by the others for profiting from the unforgiving plague, she forges on and even gets romantically involved with the bereft Stan.
The three sisters have their ups and downs -- mostly downs -- with Mary losing fiancé Richard and the untamable Sissy finding reasons to preach about the end of the world, which then goes on after the date she's predicted. Rose and Doris spend most of their time spreading the latest titillating news as if they're in a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover illustration, until, that is, the flu affects them as well.
Due to the short run, the press night coincided with the production's first preview. This might explain why there was a certain amount of overacting going on that director Sanchez may have contained for subsequent performances. It's possible, though, that the profuse use of noise-making devices in the early parts of the two-act play remains. The conceit works when conjuring the sounds of an arriving train. Otherwise, the clanging and ratcheting can be annoying. Or is it Sanchez's symbol of a disgruntled populace protesting in the only ineffective way they can?
At one point, a Unity (1918) character lies atop a coffin. (Several have already been placed in one, of course.) The image certainly comes across as a suitable metaphor for Kerr's elegiac work.