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Flu story honours hometown heroes

Chatelech drama students have taken on the challenge of an emotionally mature play in honour of Remembrance Day - and they are doing an excellent job.

Chatelech drama students have taken on the challenge of an emotionally mature play in honour of Remembrance Day - and they are doing an excellent job.

Canadian playwright Kevin Kerr's Unity 1918 won the Governor-General's Award for Drama, after being produced during Vancouver's Touchstone Theatre residency program in 1999/2000.

The story is set in 1918 when Spanish influenza reaches the town of Unity, Sask. Estimates vary as to how many people this global flu killed - some figures put it at around 50 million or three percent of the world's population. The movement of troops in World War One hastened the flu bug's journey, and returning soldiers found that their home towns were under quarantine.

The story is told in episodes, often through the eyes of Beatrice, played by Maya Schutz, who nurses the sick and writes in her diary. Others write poetry or warn of the apocalypse, especially Sissy, played by Erica Thumm. A soldier (Sam Mountenay) returns home blinded, but alive, only to contract the flu. Neighbour turns on neighbour and everyone resents how the funeral home makes money from death. Sunna, the mortician, (Willow Koski-Kendel) becomes an outcast.

"Fear is the real killer," says one character.

The fear escalates to paranoia (could the flu be a secret weapon of the Germans?) and resentment. There can be no public gatherings, no holding hands, no kissing. The ironically named town of Unity slides into disunity and it hovers on the edge of death.

"It's a deep play," said drama teacher Paddy McCallum. "But the students wanted to try something more adult and contemporary. They fell in love with the characters and took on this challenge."

Student Myesha Geoff-rion, who plays Beatrice's best friend, notes that she has never been part of serious drama.

"It makes us feel like we're serious actors," she said.

At age 17, Maya Schutz is playing a strong character, an older woman from a different era who is strict and contained. Maya points out that the ravages of the flu were not taught in social studies class, and many of the actors are learning about it for the first time.

Carly Winter plays Rose, a telephone operator. Doris, the telegraph operator, is played by Zoe Hadeler (a Grade 9 student). Maize Longboat plays Michael, a farmhand, and Aaron Parnell plays an incompetent farmer and widower.

Performer Anne-Marie Lindell is directing the play. She said she is impressed with the maturity level of the actors, most of whom are in grades 11 and 12.

"They've developed their characters well and are working together as a group," she said.

A student crew is also rising to the challenge of lighting and sound, a difficult job given the episodic nature of the play. The backdrop makes use of multimedia projections of photos and images of the time created by Terran Tasci and Sarah Williams. Costumes are by Arielle White.

Schutz was concerned that a serious drama would not bring in the audiences who are accustomed to watching plays like last year's production, Alice in Wonderland. Everyone hopes that adults will take a chance and see the growth in these young performers.

Unity 1918 is on for two nights only, Nov. 12 and 13, at 7:30 p.m. at the Chatelech Theatre in Sechelt. Tickets are $10, available at the school, with proceeds going to the Drama Society.