Unsung: Tales From The Front Line, living portraits of the health care people who risked everything to keep us safe. A review

Melissa Thingelstad in Unsung: Tales From The Front Line, Workshop West. Photo by dbphotographics

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

What just happened here?

That leading question is the raison d’être of the “performance installation” currently running at Workshop West. In the ongoing COVID pandemic,  frontline healthcare workers have risked everything to do their jobs keeping us safe, week after week, month after month — the soldiers of public health care, battered by their own provincial government, by ideology and political posturing, by public discord.

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Who are they? Unsung: Tales From The Front Line, a joint creation of Heather Inglis and Darrin Hagen, is your chance to meet seven, to find out what they think and what motivates them, to hear their real-life stories in close encounters. They’re played by actors, delivering five-minute monologues transcribed (and edited) verbatim from interviews, all anonymous “living portraits.”  And if you think you know what you think, think again. 

On Sunday afternoon at the Gateway Theatre , wandering through the curtained enclosures of the hospital maze (seven inventive designs by Brian Bast, with that hospital heartbeat/machine hum soundscape by Hagen)), I met people I never get to meet. Like an ICU physician (played by Davina Stewart) who takes the long view of humanity’s place on the planet. “I don’t like our trajectory…. COVID, horrific as it is, is a distraction.” That stopped me in my tracks. 

Melissa Thingelstad in Unsung: Tales From The Front Line, Workshop West. Photo by dbphotographics

In a supply closet, I met an ER physician (Melissa Thingelstad), who takes off her mask to say that she doesn’t want to be a hero because heroes become villains soon enough. And, remarkably,  thinking about COVID deniers and anti-vaxxers who regularly end up in the ER as critical care patients, hurling abuse at the health care staff, she just shrugs.

It’s her job to provide care to everyone, anyone, no matter how much they’ve created their own crisis — drunks who kill people in car accidents, smokers who get lung cancer.… Arguing is not only futile, but beside the point. “I just want to do my fucking job.” Could I have been so dispassionately professional? I think not. 

I met a hospital administrator (Patricia Darbasie), put in an impossibly stressful position by the lack of masks and protective equipment, staff shortages, the never-ebbing deluge of the sick. It left her burnt out and suicidal. And an ICU nurse (Sheldon Stockdale) shaken to see young men, strapping and healthy, who could have been his own brothers, fighting for their lives. 

The single-minded dedication to helping people is a keynote of Unsung. I met a health care aide (Jade Robinson) who watched as the profit motive trounced true public health care in the case of her elderly patients with dementia. “They deserve better,” she says over and over. She paid a price. After every shift she isolated from her own family, never eating with her daughter … until the relief of the vaccine. 

What sort of lunacy is it for a government to pick a fight with healthcare workers during a pandemic, threatening lay-offs, trying to cut wages? A “recreational assistant” (Rebecca Merkley), faced with patients under lockdown, rolls her eyes and wonders. 

Trevor Duplessis in Unsung, Workshop West. Photo by dbphotographics

A paramedic (Trevor Duplessis) is outraged that his line of work — going into people’s homes to rescue sick people, sticking with them in “a steel box” — wasn’t deemed ‘front line’ when it came to vaccines. Getting asked in the bar whether COVID was “real” gets his dander up too, understandably.  

Their stories do intersect with the political sphere, of course, and at varying angles. How could they not? Jason Kenney’s political spin about the “best summer ever”? Frontline workers noted that, along with the sequel, “the worst fall.”

You can visit the enclosures in any order, stay or move on, as you would in a gallery. Meeting all seven people took me about an hour.  The actors, directed by Inglis, are so intensely engaging, eyeball to eyeball you’ll find yourself nodding agreement, or wanting to answer back and ask a question. “My god!” muttered the lady standing next to me at one encounter, slapping her forehead. There is a compelling authenticity about real words, as you’ll know if you visited Inglis’s Theatre Yes performance installation Viscosity, about front line oil patch workers, in 2018,    

On the way out I stopped in the lobby to look at a wall covered in hand-written stickies. What did you lose in the pandemic? That’s the question awaiting your own input. “My faith in humanity,” said one sticky note. “My sense of smell,” said another. “Respect for my fellow citizens.” “Connection with people.” 

What did you gain? “Respect for human life,” said one note. “Respect for healthcare professionals,” said another. They’ve been up against it, these workers in a war where they’ve faced death and destruction, and been undermined by their own leaders. 

You need to hear from them. 


Unsung: Tales From The Front Line

Theatre: Workshop West, in partnership with Theatre Yes and Ground Zero Productions

Created by: Heather Inglis and Darrin Hagen

Directed by: Heather Inglis

Starring: Patricia Darbasie, Davina Stewart, Melissa Thingelstad, Jade Robinson, Rebecca Merkley, Trevor Duplessis, Sheldon Stockdale

Where: Gateway Theatre, 8529 Gateway Blvd

Running: through Feb. 12

Tickets: workshopwest.org 

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