First Nighter: Kevin Kerr's Affecting Period PIece Unity (1918)

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.