Manitoba·Review

Story of Filipina nurses in small-town Sask. comes up a bit short on laughs but big on heart

Playwright Marie Beath Badian’s 2013 play deals with a story that will resonate with many Filipino-Canadian families, and does it with plenty of heart — if perhaps not with as many big laughs as you might hope.

Prairie Nurse, about culture shock in 1960s rural Canada, opens new Prairie Theatre Exchange season

Dutchess Cayetano as Puring and Stephanie Sy as Penny in Prairie Theatre Exchange's Prairie Nurse, which tells a very Canadian story with humanity and heart. (Leif Norman/Prairie Theatre Exchange)

The greatest mystery to Prairie Nurse — the season-opening play at Prairie Theatre Exchange — might be that it's taken so long to come to Winnipeg.

This city is, after all, home to one of the largest and most established Filipino populations in Canada (not to mention the country's first two Jollibee restaurants).

Toronto playwright Marie Beath Badian's 2013 play tells a story that will resonate not just with many Filipino-Canadian families, but with anyone who's ever felt a little out of place — and does it with plenty of heart, if perhaps not with as many big laughs as you might hope.

The nonetheless crowd-pleasing comedy follows Puring (short for Purificacion) and Penny (for Indepencia), two women from the Philippines who come to small-town Saskatchewan to work as nurses in the 1960s.

Needless to say, there's a bit of culture shock here — both for the nurses (played winningly by Dutchess Cayetano and Stephanie Sy) and for the residents of Arborfield, Sask., who are all very well-meaning but have an unfortunate inability to tell the two newcomers apart.

Mistaken identities, comic mix-ups, and some classic farce schtick ensue in Prairie Nurse, which is bigger on heart than it is on laughs. (Leif Norman/Prairie Theatre Exchange)

That's a real problem for Wilf Klassen (Kristian Jordan), the bumbling hospital lab technician (and star goalie of the local hockey team) who quickly falls in love with one of the nurses — but has a bit of trouble figuring out which one.

Mistaken identities, comic mix-ups, and — in classic farce fashion — lots of people entering through one door of Brian Perchaluk's attractive period set as someone else exits through the other ensue.

Badian smartly avoids a lot of the very easy laughs (there aren't too many jokes about how cold Canada is) and offers up something a bit more nuanced with Prairie Nurse.

No one's overtly racist, for example — yet there's the suggestion of a more subtle racism in that no one can tell the difference between conservative Puring, who comes from a rural community, and her more worldly co-worker Penny, who comes from a wealthy Manila family.

Prairie Nurse tells the story of two Filipina nurses working in small-town Saskatchewan after coming to Canada during a wave of immigration from the Philippines in the 1960s. 3:09

At the same time, the play doesn't feel like it always fully delivers on the comedic potential of the situation. There are lots of chuckles throughout, but fewer big laughs. That may be in part because the play's culture-shock premise and farcical approach feel too familiar to generate really cracking comedy. 

Though director Ardith Boxall's production is snappy and well-timed, Prairie Nurse feels like it repeats some comedic beats throughout its 130-minute (with intermission) running time.

Most of the production's best comedy comes from the supporting characters — particularly scattered Scotsman Dr. McGreggor (Ross McMillan), who'd far rather be out fishing or shooting something in the bush than delivering babies, and hospital caretaker Charlie Govenlock (Robb Paterson), who dispenses snappy one-liners as easily as he does fatherly wisdom.

Pamela Halstead as the stern head nurse Marie Anne and Rayna Masterton as Patsy, the hospital's moony candy striper/would-be matchmaker, also find some of the play's better laughs.

Ross McMillan, centre, as Dr. MacGreggor with Dutchess Cayetano as Puring and Stephanie Sy as Penny. The supporting characters offer some of the best comedy in Marie Beath Badian's play. (Leif Norman/Prairie Theatre Exchange)

But Prairie Nurse is going for more than just laughs, and where it connects is with its gentle and genuine humanity. Both Puring and Penny, in their own ways, struggle with life in their new home, and Badian's play doesn't gloss over that.

Wrapped in an accessible comedic package, it speaks to how difficult it is to be a trailblazer in any sense, and how communities come together — though often imperfectly.

While it's also not a perfect play, Prairie Nurse tells a very Canadian story, and one that will certainly speak to a Winnipeg audience with warmth and heart.

Prairie Nurse runs at Prairie Theatre Exchange until Oct. 21.

Prairie Nurse runs at the Prairie Theatre Exchange until Oct. 21. 4:00

About the Author

Joff Schmidt

CBC theatre reviewer

Joff Schmidt is a copy editor for CBC Manitoba. Since 2005, he's also been CBC Manitoba's theatre critic on radio and online. He majored in theatre at the U of M, and performed in many university and Fringe festival productions along the way (ranging from terrible to pretty good, according to the reviews). Find him on Twitter @JoffSchmidt.

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