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'Prairie Nurse' by Marie Beath Badian

Capitol Theatre, 20 Queen Street, Port Hope

Capitol Theatre, 20 Queen Street, Port Hope

Joe Szekeres

A summertime crowd-pleaser of a play. ‘Prairie Nurse’ addresses an important social issue through humour while never denigrating it.

Based on the true story of Badian’s mother's immigration to Canada in the late 1960s, ‘Prairie Nurse’ centres on two Filipino nurses: Indepencia “Penny” (Kryslyne-Mai Ancheta) and Purificacion “Puring” (Yunike Soedarmasato) who have arrived from Manila to work at a small-town Saskatchewan hospital. Penny and Puring never knew each other until they arrived at the airport. They intend to send money home to their families in the Philippines, hoping to bring family members to Canada.

The setting is a small Saskatchewan hospital in a rural area in the late 1960s. The characters at this hospital are quite eccentric. Head Nurse Marie Anne (Deborah Drakeford) is tough, no-nonsense, demanding, and resorts to chain smoking when workplace tension is thick. Candy striper Patsy (Ellie Ellwand) is curious, nosy, and involved in everyone's business. Wilf (Aaron MacPherson), the lab technician, plays goalie on the local hockey team and is friends with Patsy's unseen boyfriend, Hank. A heavily Scottish-accented Dr. Miles (Iain Stewart) enjoys hunting and fishing and would rather be doing that instead of his rounds. Charlie (David Ferry) is a helpful and friendly handyman who is a father figure to the new hospital staff.

Jackie Chau’s spacious set design fills the entire Capitol Stage and appears right out of the late 1960s with mismatched furniture. The hospital staff needs a good cleaning and fixing up. Pictures are slightly askew on the walls. There is a door stage right which leads to the outside hallway of the hospital. A swinging door just off-stage left centre serves as another entrance and exit. Stage left is a tightly compact kitchen with a stove and mismatched kitchen set. The walls are painted in the typical institutional white.

Chau’s costume designs are a terrific throwback to the past, starting with the nurses’ completely white attire. Wilf’s goalie mask made me laugh out loud at his initial entrance. He looked like something right out of a horror flick. Patsy’s candy striper uniform is a wondrous throwback to when these volunteers could be found in hospitals. (Are there candy stripers in hospitals anymore?)

Marie Beath Badian’s script contains elements of broad slapstick comedy with the odd touch of farce and seasoned with possible burgeoning romances. For this reason, ‘Prairie Nurse’ is a good choice for the Capitol’s summer season. When done well, broad comedy and slapstick become an audience pleaser.

And we need laughter as an audience pleaser right now because our woke world is fraught with overwhelming societal issues.

More about a social issue of the plot shortly.

Director Megan Watson duly makes sure the pace of this opening night production never veers out of control. Entrances and exits are nicely timed – in other words, when one exits, another must enter immediately. Notes end up in the wrong hands, fisticuffs, shouting and crawling around on the floor.

This hard-working ensemble cast commits themselves to the humour. Deborah Drakeford’s crawling on the floor simply made me laugh, as a Head Nurse would never do such a thing. Iain Stewart’s thickly accented Scottish Dr. Miles is a hoot, especially with the various hunting attire in which he accoutres himself. Aaron MacPherson’s Wilf is a boyishly shy technician who comically gets himself tongue-tied when (spoiler alert) he becomes smitten with one of the girls. David Ferry’s Charlie becomes that wise poppa bear for Penny and Puring. Ferry’s beautiful comic timing in the second-act melee is one of the show’s highlights. Ellie Ellwand is a giddy and ditzy Patsy.

Kryslyne-Mai Ancheta and Yunike Soedarmasto are charming as the new arrival nurses. Both actors instinctively make Penny and Puring their unique person. Ancheta’s assured Penny is confident (perhaps a bit full of herself) in why she had signed this contract to work at this hospital. Hopefully, she wants to bring her fiancé to Canada. Soedarmasto’s shyly reticent Puring is sweet. Her reaction to people swearing made me smile because I can recall that same reaction from family members many years ago in the 60s.

Now to the critical social issue of ‘Prairie Nurse.’

Playwright Badian topically uses contextual humour from the 1960s to poke fun at the arrival of new individuals to a country. It’s the elephant in the room from a 21st-century understanding and might make some uncomfortable.

We would never dare say or remark: a) that members of the BIPOC community look different from white people OR b) that members of the BIPOC community look the same. These two statements contain unkind racist tones today.

But much of the humour stems from some hospital workers mistaking who Penny and Purring are just by looking at them. Wilf confuses them, leading to madcap zaniness in the second act. Iain Stewart’s comical staring at Penny and Puring silently before he must do something to tell the difference between them brought laughter from me and those sitting around me in the audience.

In her Director's Programme Note, Megan Watson discusses how Badian's playful approach effectively captures the experience of newcomers to Canada. She emphasizes the importance of trusting the audience's ability to recognize the human vulnerabilities revealed through this technique. I do too.

Final Comments: This Capitol Theatre summer production marks the tenth anniversary of 'Prairie Nurse.’ It is the first instalment of a fifty-year multi-generational trilogy in rural Saskatchewan. Badian's second work, 'The Waltz,’ was performed at Toronto's Factory Theatre this year, and the third, 'The Cottage Guest,’ is currently in development. The Blyth Festival has commissioned all three plays.

I never saw the 2013 premiere and just recently saw ‘The Waltz’ this past winter. Ergo, I’ve seen the plays out of order and perhaps may look at the story differently if seen in the order intended.

But a recent profile conversation with the playwright led me to some insight about her life that served as a basis for me. Here’s the link to my conversation with Marie Beath:

See ‘Prairie Nurse.’ It offers terrific summer entertainment.

Running time: approximately two hours and 15 minutes with one intermission.

The production runs until July 30 at Port Hope’s Capitol Theatre, Mainstage, 20 Queen Street. For tickets, or call 905-885-1071.

PRAIRIE NURSE by Marie Beath Badian
Directed by Megan Watson
Set and Costume Designer: Jackie Chau
Lighting Designer: Jareth Li
Composer and Sound Designer: Jeff Newberry
Stage Manager: Charlene Saroyan

Performers: Kryslyne-Mai Ancheta, Deborah Drakeford, Ellie Ellwand, David Ferry, Aaron MacPherson, Yunike Soedarmasto, Iain Stewart.

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