A review of the play, Pugwash
Written by Vern Thiessen and Directed by Natasha MacLellan
In the 1950s, a nuclear shadow darkened the world as the Cold War threatened to become a hot war.
Those of us who were children during those troubling times experienced the existential dread that the Soviet Union was going to take over the world and that every country would become a nuclear battle ground.
Pugwash, a play written by Vern Thiessen and directed by Natasha MacLellan, was performed in July at the Ship’s Company Theatre in Parrsboro. It is a work of historical fiction based on the first Pugwash Conference that took place in 1957, a very bleak year in the depths of the Cold War.
As the world marched steadily towards nuclear Armageddon, Cumberland County native and billionaire industrialist Cyrus Eaton (Stephen Cross), invited 22 scientists and leading intellectuals from around the world to Pugwash to discuss how nuclear war could be avoided. The “thinkers” were billeted with families in town.
Eaton was an idealist who believed that we all share a common humanity and that if intellectuals from countries on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain would just talk to one another in a heartfelt exchange of ideas, the world could fend off destruction.
The play is a great success. The playwright and crew engage the audience in a local human story set within much larger global events. This is done through the friendly relationships that develop between two of the thinkers and two local children. Ogawa (Ian Leung), a Japanese scientist, becomes friends with Conni McPhee (Gina Thornhill) and Alex (Theo Pitsiavas), a Soviet academic, gets to know a newspaper boy, Jamie Gillis (Henricus Gielis).
The children speak their fears openly and authentically to the thinkers and are responded to in kind. Conni tells of her reoccurring nightmares of an evil Russian monster that paralyses her legs and Jamie expresses his horrific obsession with the destructive power of fire. Alex discloses how he mourns for his 19-year-old son, a fighter pilot who was killed during the Korean War. Ogawa speaks emotionally of his sister, killed during the atomic blast over Hiroshima.
All of the characters have been emotionally scarred by war and their awareness of their vulnerability connects them.
When the post office catches fire, Pugwashians and thinkers join together to form a bucket brigade to douse the flames. The ideologies, language barriers and cultural differences that divide them evaporate in the need to face a common menace. That people collaborating in the face of danger can make a difference is the big take-away of the play.
There is a problem with how America is portrayed in the play, however. The sole American character, Brown (Karen Bassett), is a chain smoking, green-back-flashing, sleazy reporter working at the National Review, a magazine edited by the ardent anti-socialist, William F. Buckley. Unlike the Russian, Japanese and Canadian characters, the American lacks humanity. He uses the almighty dollar in an attempt to manipulate the naive Jamie.
Brown is a cardboard cut-out of the villainous ugly American; he is far too stereotypical. In a play that otherwise attends beautifully to the nuances of character, this simplistic portrayal of anti-socialist America is both tiresome and typical of the left-leaning entertainment industry.
Conni quotes her father, “My daddy says the Soviets will make us all slaves.” William F. Buckley would have agreed.
In 1957 there was much evidence to support this claim. The Soviet socialists had sent tanks into Hungary to suppress the democratic movement there. Soviet gulags were in full swing and the building of the Berlin Wall was about to make East Germany a socialist prison camp.
In our own generation, socialists in Venezuela have taken their oil-rich country so far up that proverbial creek that they cannot manage to feed themselves. Whenever the production and free exchange of goods is put under socialist discipline, misery and servitude are the inevitable results.
Still, individuals working together, using their right reason, can and will make a difference. Any play that puts this forward is to be commended. On the 60th anniversary of the year that “the world came to Pugwash,” Pugwashians can be rightfully proud of the role they played in ensuring that the world did not become a radioactive wasteland.