The story of Mona Parsons sounds eerily similar to modern-day headlines: bombings, persecution, torture and refugees fleeing a war-town land.
Indeed, Halifax’s LunaSea Theatre did a fine job making the audience feel the same gut fear that Mona Parsons felt in a Nazi jail, beaten by guards and fed starvation rations, an ocean away from her hometown of Wolfville. The Bitterest Time is not meant to be enjoyed, but rather serve as a lesson from history that has not yet been heeded.
We first meet Parsons, played by Amanda LeBlanc, in a bare cell at Wiedenbruck prison in Germany. We see flashbacks to a happier time before the Second World War, enjoying a romantic moment with her Dutch husband Willem Leonhardt (Garry Williams).
The pair lived in Holland when the Germans invaded in 1940 and overran the country in just five days. Both Parsons and Leonhardt resisted by sheltering shot-down Allied airmen and were arrested in 1941.
The flashbacks continue: an interrogation at the hands of a Nazi Gestapo agent complete with swastika armband and a shout that makes you flinch, as if you are the one trying to hide the fact of your involvement in any resistance.
The flashback-style memories and sharp-edged prison scenes may be a reflection of the post-traumatic stress disorders suffered by millions of people who lived through the Second World War. This includes soldiers, civilians from occupied countries and those who survived the concentration camps and Holocaust.
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However, LeBlanc does an excellent job bringing Mona Parsons back to life in the deadly confines of a Nazi jail.
It is here that we see the true Canadian spirit – a peaceful resistance against tyranny. For Parsons, that means speaking English in defiance of prison orders and sabotaging everything from army socks to bomb timers that the Germans force prisoners to make as slave labourers. It also means standing on a stool and singing with guards just outside the window.
Parson wins her victory wearing only her simple prison clothes, malnourished, barefoot and lacking any weapon except that stout Nova Scotian heart that still makes you proud to be Canadian more than 70 years after the Second World War.
And unlike the peacetime stereotype of a ‘nice’ Canadian, Parsons apologizes for nothing, instead reveling in her efforts to undermine Nazi Germany from within.
It is here the audience is lifted up from near-despair to a feeling of defiance, as both you and your fellow theatre-goers instinctively will for both Parsons and her Dutch friend Wendy to be free.
Freedom finally comes in the form of an allied bombing and a chaotic escape playing a mute German civilian. The tension never lets up until the last possible second however, as Parsons must seek shelter from a Nazi SS soldier – the very people who imprisoned her in the first place.
The audience may only breathe that collective sigh of relief when Parsons makes it over the Dutch border and is rescued by soldiers from her home province – the North Nova Scotia Highlanders to be precise.
We are never allowed to forget that Parsons ended the war as a refugee, wandering the roads of Europe like millions of others displaced by conflict. Here is where the unlearned lessons of history become most apparent.
We can easily imagine Parsons as the prisoner of a modern-day dictatorship, or the hostage of some terrorist group. After all, her swastika-clad guards display the same thuggery as ISIS or the Syrian government’s secret police, who have murdered thousands between them.
We can also imagine Parsons fleeing barrel bomb attacks on a flimsy boat to Europe, or shivering and hungry in a freezing refugee camp.
As this review goes to print, the Syrian regime and its Russian allies are preparing another major offensive that could displace millions and kill tens of thousands. It may trigger a humanitarian catastrophe on a scale not seen since Parsons’ time.
At this time, we must ask ourselves: who will be the next Mona Parsons?
Are Canadians ready to help innocent victims of war as Parsons did – or will we look away in the face of tyranny?