A Case of Race Face-Blindness
Reviewed by Mary Alderson
It’s the mid-sixties. Across Canada, young doctors from Ireland are taking positions in our hospitals. On the Prairies, young women from the Philippines arrive to work in hospitals due to the nursing shortage. And while there are culture clashes, there are also attractions between native Saskatchewaners and the new Filipinos.
That’s the story of Prairie Nurse, a funny, yet factual Canadian comedy now on stage at Port Hope’s Capitol Theatre. It’s a charming tale, designed to dispel cultural myths and make everyone involved able to laugh at themselves.
The first thing we learn: Just because two nurses from the Philippines arrive together in Saskatchewan, doesn’t mean they are friends, or even have much in common, for that matter. And while the white folks of Saskatchewan have difficulty telling the Filipinos apart, the young nurses struggle to know who’s who among their new colleagues, too. Not recognizing faces is a difficulty some people have, and it is especially challenging when looking at people of a race you don’t regularly see. Race face-blindness happens both ways in this story and contributes to the humour.
Puring is the sweet and shy girl from the Philippines, while Penny is the more sophisticated of the two, and looks down on Puring for her lack of fashion sense. They are immediately traumatized upon arrival in Saskatchewan, terrified by the sign that announces they have arrived in the “Land of Rape & Honey”. (I saw that sign in 1974 in Tisdale). Eventually it was explained that rape is a seed grown for oil and renamed canola. The mistaken identities and cultural shifts, along with youthful romance create many laughs along the way.
The Filipino nurses are both good: Yunike Soedarmasto is the sweet, innocent, and sometimes frightened Puring, while Kryslyne-Mai Ancheta is convincing as the more aggressive Penny with some secrets in her background. Deborah Drakeford rules with an iron fist as the tough head nurse, smoking and cursing while managing the small hospital. Ellie Ellwand is delightful as Patsy, the candy striper trying to play cupid. Aaron Macpherson is hilarious as Wilf, the lab tech who got the job because the town’s hockey team needed a goalie. He has a crush on one of the nurses, but can’t tell them apart. The situation makes for many good laughs. David Ferry also creates humour as Charlie, the father figure who attempts to sort out the issues the younger folks face. Iain Stewart is the comedic doctor who is more interested in his hunting rifle and fishing rod than looking after the one or two patients in the hospital. Historically it was Irish doctors who immigrated to Canada, but Stewart’s accent sounded a little more Scottish.
Just two concerns with this production: some cast members spoke very quickly and occasionally turned their backs to the audience, making it difficult to hear and understand them. Punch lines were missed. Some of the fist fights seemed over the top and not realistic. Perhaps physical comedy will level out to a more genuine appearance as the cast gets more comfortable.
What I find most interesting about this play is the fact that it’s a true story. Playwright Marie Beath Badian wrote the story about her mother’s arrival in Saskatchewan and in the play, her mother is Puring. Badian and her mother even revisited the hospital where she first worked all those years earlier. They also looked up the real-life Penny when Badian was researching to write the play. I was fortunate enough to see it 10 years ago, when it premiered at the Blyth Festival. I thoroughly enjoyed it, so I’m happy to see it produced again. The good news is that it’s being turned into a trilogy – the second play is called The Waltz, and the third play, The Cottage Guest, is in development.
Badian has woven together an amusing and heart-warming tale around a piece of Canadian history, thus preserving this interesting bit of past Prairie life.
Prairie Nurse continues at the Capitol Theatre in Port Hope until July 30, 2023. Tickets are available at the box office by calling 905-885-1071 or visiting https://capitoltheatre.com/
Photo: 1. Ellie Ellwand as Patsy and Yunike Soedarmasto as Puring. 2. Deborah Drakeford as the head nurse, Kryslyne-Mai Ancheta as Penny, David Ferry as Charlie, and Aaron Macpherson (on the floor) as Wilf, the lab tech.
By Marie Beath Badian
Directed by Megan Watson
Performed by Kryslyne-Mai Ancheta, Deborah Drakeford, Ellie Ellwand, David Ferry, Aaron Macpherson, Yunike Soedarmasto, and Iain Stewart.
The Capitol Theatre, Port Hope
July 14 to 30, 2023
Reviewed by Mary Alderson