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Small Canadian town fights a battle in wake of war in Bethel spring play

September 11th, 2017

by Sam Bertholf

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – The Bethel College spring play is a coming-of-age story set in a time of almost overwhelming darkness.

The Bethel theater department presents Unity (1918) by Kevin Kerr, April 28 and 29 at 7:30 p.m. in Krehbiel Auditorium in Luyken Fine Arts Center.

Tickets are on sale at Thresher Shop in Schultz Student Center, open Mon.-Fri., 8 a.m.-5 p.m., or at the door (subject to availability). Tickets prices are $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and non-Bethel students, and $5 for children. Bethel students are admitted free.

Director Ethan Koerner noted that because of language and sexually suggestive situations, the play is for mature audiences only.

Set in the small rural community of Unity, Saskatchewan, during the fall of 1918, the play focuses on a mysterious and deadly plague that swept the globe just as the First World War was ending.

Commonly known as the Spanish flu, the disease brought some of the terror and panic of the Great War home with returning soldiers, as it tended to strike (and kill) young adults. The epidemic killed between 50 and 100 million people, more than died in battle throughout the armed conflict.

The closest thing to a central character in Unity (1918) is Beatrice, forced by circumstances to assume great responsibilities. Her diary entries and interactions with others in the town show Bea’s transition from a young girl to a woman discovering her capacity for survival.

The play has an eclectic array of characters, from a 15-year-old undertaker to a blind soldier returning from the war, who point out the small and often forgotten horrors of life in 1918.

Kerr creates a haunting and, oddly, funny world where fresh corpses fart and young ladies fall in love knowing their lives may end within the month.

Unity (1918), which won Canada’s highest literary prize, the Governor General’s Award for Drama, in 2002, is an epic chronicle of an often-forgotten chapter of Canadian history, as well as a chilling preview of the beginnings of the 21st century (with its parallels to HIV, SARS and other pandemics).

Koerner believes the dark setting of Unity (1918) provides an excellent means for telling a coming-of-age story.

“Set against the backdrop of these destructive events,” he said, “we see young girls coming of age and struggling to make sense of their world.

“The play has a lot of darkness and death, but it is actually a really funny play,” he added. “That interplay of light and darkness is really fun to work with as a director and an actor. I think it will make for a poignant and enjoyable audience experience.”

Ryne Preheim, junior from Reedley, California, plays Hart in Unity (1918). He believes the play is a shining example of how even in the darkest of times, there can still be a ray of light if one just looks for it.

Unity is a unique show,” Preheim said. “While it is centered around death, with the Spanish flu terrorizing the town, the [play] shows us that even in darkness there is humor and laughter.

“With the 100-year anniversary of America’s involvement with World War I just recently passing, this show provides a much-needed perspective on an often forgotten point in history.”

Matthew Garber, freshman from Newton, plays three roles, Michael, Glen and Man 1. He is of the opinion that the play, while humorous, also gives a serious look into what people faced during the time period.

“I think people should come see it, because it’s a serious play that gives some insight about what people, or some people, were thinking during the Spanish flu,” Garber said, “but it also has some humorous parts in it.”

Koerner is confident the drama will provide for an incredible audience experience and would encourage everyone to see it.

He said, “I think audiences will find it entertaining. It is funny, it is heartbreaking and it deals with a very interesting period of history.”

In addition to Preheim and Garber, the cast of Unity (1918) includes: Kate Jolliff, Newton, as Bea; Shaelyn Atwood, Sabetha, as Sissy; Madison Hofer-Holdeman, Wichita, as Mary; Abby Phillips, Maple Hill, as Rose; Mikala Wertz, Wichita, as Doris; Polly Carlson, Hurley, South Dakota, as Sunna; and Logan Hughes, Marana, Arizona, as Stan, Chaperone and Man 2.

The stage manager is Anna Wiens, Goessel, with sound by Lily Funk, Olathe, and costumes by Callie Ross, Overland Park.

Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2016'17 analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see

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As the first Mennonite college founded in North America, Bethel College celebrates a tradition of progressive Christian liberal arts education, diversity within community, and lifelong learning.