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Prairie Nurse, about two new-to-Saskatchewan nurses, is an upbeat comedy that was enthusiastically received by an opening-night audience at Factory Theatre on Thursday.

JOSEPH HOWARTH/Joseph Michael Photography

  • Title: Prairie Nurse
  • Written by: Marie Beath Badian
  • Genre: Comedy
  • Director: Sue Miner
  • Actors:  Belinda Corpuz, Isabel Kanaan, Janelle Hanna, Matt Shaw¸ Mark Crawford Layne Coleman, Catherine Fitch
  • Company:  Factory Theatre/Thousand Islands Playhouse  
  • Venue: Factory Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Runs to May 13, 2018

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A farce is on the loose at Factory Theatre, where a screwball account of real-life happenings in the 1960s might as well be called Little Brown People All Look Alike on the Prairie. Playwright Marie Beath Badian calls it Prairie Nurse, which is deceiving in that it is two new-to-Saskatchewan nurses, not one, who cause a culture-clashing confusion of romance and mistaken identity in an upbeat comedy enthusiastically received by an opening-night audience at Factory Theatre on Thursday.

Before the production (co-mounted by Thousand Islands Playhouse), Factory artistic director Nina Lee Aquino spoke to the crowd about the immigrant story being a vital part of the Canadian story. And while characterizing the play about a pair of young Filipino nurses as “zany,” she said she saw it as a “love letter” to workers going to a new place to make a better life for their loved ones back home.

Aquino also described Canada’s most rectangular province as the “strange land called Saskatchewan.” The sense of weirdness is heightened in Prairie Nurse, where a small-town hospital is staffed with eccentrics and exaggerated characters who deal with the two young “Philippinese” with bumbling animation.

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Factory artistic director Nina Lee Aquino she said she saw the play as a 'love letter' to workers going to a new place to make a better life for their loved ones back home.

Joseph Michael Photography

We have the excitable candy striper Patsy, a real keen spirit with a pigtail personality and a high, squeaky voice from actress Janelle Hanna that makes Megan Mullally’s Will & Grace character sound like Lauren Bacall in comparison. Patsy, jittery and near-crazed in anticipation of the nurses’ arrival, has Elvis Presley’s Blue Hawaii ready to go on the record player when they come.

When they do come, they are completely and understandably freaked out. The Scottish expat physician and hunting enthusiast Dr. Miles MacGreggor is carrying a rifle and Wilf, the soft-headed lab technician, is wearing a goalie mask. They’re also spooked because, well, it is Saskatchewan, after all.

Not only that, one of the Filipino nurses, Purificacion (Puring) Saberon, is in tears because on the drive in from the airport she saw a sign that referred to a nearby town as the land of “rape and honey.” That was a real thing, having to do with rapeseed and canola crops.

Short, fresh-faced and innocent, Puring (Belinda Corpuz) is seen as provincial by Penny (Isabel Kanaan), who is sassy, taller and sophisticated.

JOSEPH HOWARTH/Joseph Michael Photography

The other Filipino nurse is Indepencia (Penny) Uy, who comes to Canada via California only reluctantly. Having seen Hollywood, she just wants to put in her two-year stint in rural Saskatchewan and hightail it to Vancouver with the fiancé she misses in Manila.

What ensues is a lighthearted comedy of errors, in which most of the hospital staff can’t tell the Filipino nurses apart, thus leading to silliness but not hilarity. The play is set in the nurses’ lunch room, where doors open and close and cast members come and go at a fast pace.

The joke is that the two Filipino nurses are nothing alike, physically or otherwise. Short, fresh-faced and innocent, Puring (played by Belinda Corpuz) is seen as provincial by Penny (Isabel Kanaan), who is sassy, taller, sophisticated and speaks in a radically different accent. (Is that intentional?)

Mark Crawford plays the doctor with an over-the-top cartoonish manner – somewhere between Elmer Fudd and a stock Scot. Catherine Fitch does a good job with her character, the crabby, exasperated head nurse and cigarette-smoking hospital matron.

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The play is set in the nurses’ lunch room, where doors open and close and cast members come and go at a fast pace.

JOSEPH HOWARTH/Joseph Michael Photography

Then there’s Layne Coleman as the hospital caretaker. He not only looks after the grounds and the building, but the people too. Protecting one of the girls’ virtue, he lands a haymaker on the lab tech, doing so with a curious sort of physicality that took the violence out of the punch yet kept the impact. It was a small thing, but rather marvelous.

The gangly, hockey-playing lab tech (played by Matt Shaw) is love-struck by one of the new nurses, though he’s not sure which one. He came to the town from Uranium City, Sask., where his girlfriend still lives. Penny racks up long-distance charges keeping in touch with her own fiancé.

Getting to know each other, the nurses and the others find they are not so different. That we are alike – newcomers, long-stayers and the in-betweens – is the message of Prairie Nurse, if there is one. If there isn’t, the culture-clashing chaos and offbeat Canadiana is enough on its own.

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