Thoughtful farce on the prairie

Prairie Nurse explores big, complex issues like immigration, identity, and power dynamics. That it does so while making audiences laugh out loud makes this play by Marie Beath Badian something special.

Prairie Nurse is a compelling play because it covers so much ground,” says director Audrey Dwyer.

“Canada was celebrating its Centennial year. During that time there was a migration of Filipina nurses. The play showcases a community of people who are hard workers. Those are only a few things I found quite compelling.

“It’s also a farce. And so through the farce genre, Marie Beath makes us laugh while she’s employing the idea of characters with blind spots. A farce is typically about an improbable situation, however, her characters are rooted in the truth. She’s asking us to examine how we see one another and how we judge one another.”

The story is driven by a major blind spot – the fact that Wilf, a dim-witted lab technician at a small-town Saskatchewan hospital in 1967, falls in love with Puring, one of two recently arrived Filipina nurses, but can’t tell her apart from her fellow nurse Penny, even though the two are quite different in temperament.

The wisecracking head nurse and the daft doctor are similarly befuddled by their new colleagues, which adds to the confusion.

The characters are “in the realm of ridiculous,” Dwyer said. But a deeper message underpins the comical misunderstandings.

“They’re unable to see each other in their fullness, in their whole authentic self,” she said.

The story is based on Badian’s mother’s experience as a Filipina immigrant nurse, but Dwyer said people of colour struggle to be seen as individuals.

“It’s the experience that a lot of racialized people find, where there can be two people in a room and they get mixed up,” Dwyer said. “And my question is why? We define that as racism, we define that as a microaggression, but I wanted to go deeper and ask why do those things happen in Prairie Nurse?

Her contention is that “in Prairie Nurse, people aren’t taking the time to get to know one another,” especially at work.

“These characters are spending eight hours a day with each other in a stressful hospital setting. There is no room to get to really get to know one another, to ask, ‘How is your life? How are you? Who are you, on a deeper more intimate level?’ It is also about trust and power dynamics,” she said.

The play’s prairie setting resonates with Dwyer, who is headed home to Winnipeg after her stint in Port Dover to become the associate artistic director of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre.

“As a Winnipegger reading this script, I can really understand the warmth, care and the team element within this hospital,” she said, adding that she sees a parallel between Penny and Puring’s story and the immigrants and refugees coming to Canada today in search of a better life.

“I think this story in many ways is about how Canada’s doors were open,” Dwyer said.

“In this case, we’re seeing an idyllic Canada that opened its arms specifically to Filipina nurses. But with that welcoming doesn’t always come a positive experience. And because the play is about community, it’s really asking us today, how do we welcome others? And that we can’t sit back on our laurels and say, oh, Canada’s wonderful. We have to actually do the work to make sure that everybody is feeling seen.

“I think (Badian) does it in such a masterful way, because we get to laugh a lot. But what I’m hoping is that audiences can go home and go, ‘who are the new people in my community and how can I make them feel welcome?’ And that might mean more than what we’re doing today. Each person we meet might need something different, but we won’t know unless we ask.”

To pose those important questions comedically, Dwyer can lean on her years of experience as an improv performer and sketch comedy writer with The Second City in Toronto. She said the fast-paced improv world gave her “a deep internal understanding of comedic timing, rhythm, what is funny and why it’s funny.”

“(The actors’) role is not to make people laugh, it’s to play intention” and let the humour in the script speak for itself, Dwyer explained.

“What Marie Beath has written in terms of the human condition is quite hilarious, no matter where you live. And so we’re lucky, the comedy is embedded in the script.”

Stage manager Alice Barnett says the jokes born of characters’ confused interactions ring true.

“It’s awkward at times, but it plays truthfully,” she said. “There are situations you can relate to and be like, yup, I’ve been there, and I know that you’re awkward right now, but it’s funny.”

Barnett also appreciates that the script manages to include physical comedy and other farcical elements while examining big ideas through a comedic lens.

“And the humour doesn’t play down to that. It helps lift it up,” she said. “It feels really good to work on comedies that I think everyone will enjoy. I’m really excited to put this one in front of an audience.”

Dwyer is similarly jazzed to bring a smart comedy like Prairie Nurse to theatregoers with a deep appreciation for the genre.

“It’s wonderful to know that the Lighthouse audience loves a comedy. People know what’s funny, but you can’t keep laughing at the same thing forever. To be funny means to be smart,” she said. “Understanding a joke, understanding satire or farce, takes some wit. I’m pretty excited to bring this play to these audiences, because from what I understand, they’re pretty smart.”

Smart enough not to miss the message amid all the laughs.

“All of us need to be hearing stories about everyone. Theatre is a powerful tool to teach us about power dynamics, about empathy, about history, about who we are and who we can be,” Dwyer said.

“The audience can discover themselves, they can discover their friends, and their coworkers. The hope is that that we’re seeing and engaging with each other as whole authentic people, not just through the lens of gender or class or race. The hope is that we will strive to be better people.”