Stage Door Review 2023

Prairie Nurse

Friday, July 21, 2023


by Marie Beath Badian, directed by Megan Watson

Summer Stage, Capitol Theatre, Port Hope

July 15-30, 2023

“They all look the same”

The third show in the Capitol Theatre’s Summer Stage season is Prairie Nurse by Marie Beath Badian. The play had its world premiere at the Blyth Festival in 2013 and now has come to Port Hope in an excellent production. The play is witty amalgam of farce, romantic comedy and social commentary and is filled with abundant verbal and physical comedy while still raising a serious question of how people of different ethnicities view each other.

The action is set in 1967 in the hospital common room of the Arborfield Memorial Hospital in Arborfield, Saskatchewan, a real place (population 326) 266 km southwest of Saskatoon. The middle-aged matron, Marie Anne Lussier, and the teenaged candy-striper, Patsy Hackett, are excitedly looking forward to the arrival of two nurses from the Philippines and are practicing their names. Charlie, the middle-aged hospital caretaker has driven to Saskatoon to pick them up. Patsy wonders whether the two women will look like the hula dancers in the Elvis movie Blue Hawaii (1961). This question sets up the central point that the people of Arborfield have never seen any non-White people except for Mrs. Chang, who runs a local restaurant, and a couple Filipinx nurses in Nipawin and Carrot River.

When the nurses, both in their twenties, arrive carrying identical Canadian Pacific Airlines bags, one, Indepenicia (known as Penny), is tired and angry and the other, Purificacion (known as Puring), is crying. When the local lab technician Wilf tries to comfort Puring while still wearing his goalie mask from hockey practice, Puring faints. When she comes to and sees Wilf without his mask, tinkling music and a sudden lighting change indicate that the two have fallen in love at first sight. Mistaking the new nurses’ luggage tags, Wilf assumes Puring is Penny and general confusion keeps growing from that point on.

If confusion of names were the only problem, it could easily be solved. Confusion of identical twins has been a staple of farce from the comedy Menaechmi by Plautus (c.254-184 BC) to Shakespeare’s take on Plautus’s play in The Comedy of Errors (1594) to the identical quadruplets in Ray Cooney and Tony Hilton’s One for the Pot (1959).

What Badian has done is to give the notion of seeing people as identical the tone of casual racism. Wilf does not merely mix up the names of the two nurses. He literally cannot tell one from the other since the young women’s non-Whiteness blinds him to their individuality. Director Megan Watson has made this situation even more comic by casting two actors who physically are completely different with Puring, for instance, much taller than Penny.

Badian portrays Wilf as well-meaning but dim-witted, and his doltishness does contribute to his inability to differentiate Puring from Penny. Nevertheless, Badian includes an important scene between Marie Anne and the hospital’s only physician, Dr. Miles MacGreggor, where they both admit that they can’t tell which nurse is which. In contrast to Wilf, Marie Anne and Miles, Badian shows that Patsy and Charlie never have any difficulty in telling which is which. And to make clear that seeing race before individuality is not a Whites-only problem, Badian has Penny exclaim that “All white people look the same”. Some White people may find this hard to believe, but I heard exactly the same remark more than once during the two years I lived in Japan.

Although Jackie Chau’s set for the play has only two doors, in contrast to the usual wall of doors of most farces, Badian carefully ramps up the level of consternation and Watson keeps the one swing door at the back in constant motion. Watson also choreographs the actors’ nearly non-stop movement across the long, narrow stage precisely and naturalistically.

Watson has assembled a very fine cast. Principal among them are Kryslyne-Mai Ancheta as Penny and Yunike Soedarmasto as Puring. A corollary to the idea that all people of Ethnicity X look alike is that all people of Ethnicity X think alike. Badian dispels that notion in the first conversation she gives Penny and Puring alone where we see that the two nurses are complete opposites. Penny is haughty and dismissive because she is from Quezon City (population 2.9 million) and has spent time in California whereas Puring is from the provinces, namely the surfing town of Daet (population 111,000) in Camarines Norte.

Ancheta plays up Penny’s grand airs, grating manner and disdain of her present situation in contrast to Soedarmasto who portrays Puring as humble, religious and eager to do her best. The dynamic between Ancheta and Soedarmasto supplies comedy enough to run the play, though Badian has many other sources of energy at hand.

As the action develops, we discover that Penny’s perpetual grumpiness may have to do with the doubtful situation she has back in the Philippines regarding her fiancé. Under Charlie’s kind inquisitiveness, Ancheta shows that Penny’s hardness can be softened if she has the right listener. Meanwhile, as Wilf’s mistakes mount, Soedarmasto shows that Puring is not quite as soft as she first appeared and can be fiery when treated poorly.

Newcomer Aaron Macpherson is a real find as Wilf. He is superb at physical comedy and takes some spectacular tumbles and falls beside being frequently beaten up by the characters Charlie and Marie Anne. Macpherson accomplishes the difficult task of making the accident-prone Wilf both dim-witted and likeable so that despite Wilf’s failings we still root for Wilf to succeed.

Deborah Drakeford and David Ferry are old hands at comedy and really provide a kind of sold, level surface that the others can play on. Drakeford tends to play very intense characters and that is the case here with her no-nonsense, rules-are-rules matron Marie Anne. Drakeford’s Marie Anne smokes and swears a blue streak, but we know that Marie Anne is the one who holds the hospital together and she does so because beneath all the brusqueness, she cares. It is good that Badian gives Marie Anne a few reflective scenes where Drakeford can show a different side to Marie Anne and reveal the toll that running this little hospital is taking on her.

David Ferry is Charlie the hospital caretaker, but he is a caretaker in more than one sense. Charlie may be the oldest of the six characters, but he is also the most empathetic. While Marie Anne lets her anger get in the way of knowing people, Ferry’s Charlie takes a quiet approach and is only one of the six who can successfully draw people out and encourage them to disburden themselves of their worries.

Ellie Ellwand gives a richly comic performance as the candy striper Patsy, who is besotted with popular culture and is rather too keen on being a matchmaker. In fact, her matchmaking schemes only lead to more misunderstandings among the characters. Ellwand makes Patsy so funny both in emphasizing Patsy’s misplaced eagerness in trying to turn real people into figures in a pulpy romance novel and in her growing realization that the more she “helps” people with their lives the less happy the people become.

Badian is careful not to turn the characters into caricatures, but she comes close to doing just that with the character of Dr. MacGreggor. We’ve all heard of doctors who are more interested in golf than in their patients. Badian makes MacGreggor manically obsessed with hunting and fishing with no apparent interest in his patients or in running the hospital.

As if that were not enough to alienate us, Badian also specifies that his is a Scottish ex-pat. This has led Iain Stewart, who plays the doctor, to adopt a Scots accent so thick that I rarely understood what he was saying. In part, this is the point of the character – to demonstrate that two non-native speakers of English like the nurses can be more readily understood than a native speaker like MacGreggor. This is a ploy to overturn the notion that foreigners are hard to understand. In this case, Watson could have Stewart turn down his accent a few notches so that we could understand a bit more of what he says.

Prairie Nurse is a smart, quick-paced, well-designed farce that gives the genre of farce a task it seldom has of exploring the preconceptions that one group of people has about another. If, like me, you somehow missed seeing the play in Blyth or Toronto, be sure not to miss it in Port Hope.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Deborah Drakeford as Marie Anne, Kryslyne-Mai Ancheta as Penny, David Ferry as Charlie and Aaron Macpherson (on floor) as Wilf; Ellie Ellwand as Patsy and Yunike Soedarmasto as Puring; Yunike Soedarmasto as Puring, Deborah Drakeford as Marie Anne, Iain Stewart as Dr. MacGreggor, Ellie Ellwand as Patsy, David Ferry as Charlie, Aaron Macpherson as Wilf and Kryslyne-Mai Ancheta as Penny. © 2023 Sam Moffatt.

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