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Pugwash powerful combo of the political and the personal

Pugwash, the play now running at Ship's Company Theatre, is a powerful, poignant story about politics touching personal lives as Canadian playwright Vern Thiessen tells the history of the Pugwash Conferences to prevent nuclear war.
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Though I grew up in Nova Scotia, I'm ashamed to say I knew little about the Pugwash Conferences.

Not anymore.

Canadian playwright Vern Thiessen's Pugwash, now running at Ship's Company Theatre to July 30, is a powerful, poignant and thought-provoking drama that makes history present as two children's lives are forever marked by fictional events surrounding the first Thinkers' conference in 1957.

Jamie (Henricus Gielis) is a boisterous 11-year-old newspaper carrier who dreams of being a reporter and loves telling stories of local disasters.

Conni (Gina Thornhill), 13, is a dissatisfied, artistic teen who dreams of escaping her sleepy village to become an “important person.”

Conni, the narrator, opens Pugwash as she stands on Garrett Barker's brilliantly simple and effective set of a village map painted on the floor of the Parrsboro black-box theatre. 

She talks in glowing poetic terms of a Pugwash sunrise but immediately the lyricism of a rural world is undermined by the fear, suspicion and hostility that lie in all people.

In 1957 — at the height of the Cold War — Cyrus Eaton gathered 22 academics and scientists to Pugwash for the first conference aimed at freeing the world of nuclear weapons.

In the play, Pugwash, these scientists are represented by the Soviet scientist Alex, who stays at Jamie's house, and Japanese scientist Ogawa, who strikes up a tender relationship with Conni.

Stephen Cross wonderfully portrays the confident and kindly Cleveland-based Eaton, who chairs the conference meetings in his hometown while Karen Bassett gives steely indifference to a hard-edged right-wing journalist out to destroy Eaton. 

The first act of Pugwash is slow as Thiessen sets up the characters and storyline, but the second act is faster and more dramatic. Everything comes together for an excellent climax that beautifully ties all the threads of this drama together and leaves its audience deep in thought.

Like Nothing Less!, the Nova Scotia suffragists' tale playing across the waters of the Bay of Fundy at Ross Creek Centre for the Arts, this play asks people to act.

Director Natasha MacLellan has a wonderful cast as she stages Pugwash in the round with the audience on four sides to create both an intimate space and the impression of a boxing ring.

Both Theo Pitsiavas as Alex and Ian Leung as Ogawa imbue their characters with individuality, intelligence and compassion.

Both master their accents for an air of authenticity. Oddly enough, each highly likable scientist struggles with English with the same rhythm in halting, pensive delivery.

Thiessen makes it clear that war is a history shared by everyone, even if they live in a sleepy village at the edge of the world.

(Just down the street from Ship's Company Theatre is Parrsboro's large monument to its war dead.)

It's brilliant how the playwright twins the political and the personal stories and how he connects Jamie's highly embellished tales of disastrous local fires, as well as a thunderstorm, to the A-bomb.

The staging of Pugwash relies on Vicky Williams' excellent lighting design and Paul Del Mott's clear sound design with Cathleen McCormack's good period costumes, from Conni's simple dress to Eaton's white shoes, suit and homburg.

Thornhill is particularly charming and nuanced as Conni while Gielis gives Jamie all of his boyish energy and angry confusion.

Pugwash runs at the Ship's Company Theatre to July 30 for 8 p.m. shows with a 2 p.m. Sunday matinee. 



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