The Bitterest Time: powerful N.S. drama about wartime heroine Mona Parsons

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Rachel Hastings as Wendy receives a potato from Amanda LeBlanc as Mona in The Bitterest Time: The War Story of Mona Parsons, by Andria Hill-Lehr and Sarah Jane Blenkhorn.  (Bruce Dienes)

The Bitterest Time: The War Story of Mona Parsons is a powerful, deeply affecting play about the resilience of the human spirit as two women struggle to survive in a Nazi prison cell.

Thanks to Wolfville writer Andria Hill-Lehr, the story of Nova Scotian Mona Parsons – the only female Canadian civilian to be imprisoned by the Nazis in Occupied Holland – has come to light.

The Middleton-born nurse and dancer for the Ziegfeld Follies in New York married a Dutch millionaire and, after harbouring Allied soldiers at her estate, was arrested by the Nazis when she was 41, first sentenced to execution and then, on appeal, to prison. She spent three years in Nazi prisons including at Vechta where she befriended a young baroness.

This is their story of friendship and endurance as Mona buoys Wendy’s spirits with her infectious humour, imagination and love of song, dance and poetry.

Beautifully structured as a narrative with flashbacks, The Bitterest Time starts with an unseen voice, that of Hill-Lehr on her journey to discover the personality of Parsons as she talks to the elderly, rigid and unfriendly Wendelien (in a fine performance by Carroll Godsman).

Wendelien reluctantly agrees to open the closed box on her war experience and reveal the astonishing, tough, loving, lively, artistic character of Mona Parsons.

This co-production by LunaSea Theatre and SarAndipity Theatre, which just wrapped a mini-tour of Nova Scotia, featured a remarkable performance by Amanda LeBlanc as Mona.

The actor had to climb mountains of brief joy and then burrow into the depths of despair as Mona struggles to keep her sanity and her will to live.  She needed to dance like a light-hearted sparrow then hobble on bloodied feet; she needed anger and she needed lyricism when Mona quotes from Emily Bronte’s poems (the source of the title).

The success of The Bitterest Time depends on the casting of Parsons and the young Wendelien, called Wendy. Director Ryanne Chisholm struck gold in the chemistry between LeBlanc and Rachel Hastings as the rigid, fierce 23-year-old Dutch woman reluctant to share her story or yield to the power of Mona’s imagination.

In focussing on Mona’s time in prison, this play traps its audience in the grimness of a cell with an excellent design in sets by Vickie Marston, lights by Vicky Williams, costumes by Noella Murphy and sound by Jenny Trites. You can almost feel the grime and see the little bird singing outside the cell window.

This production also featured the striking Sharleen Kalayil as a pregnant prisoner and nasty, apple-eating prison guard and the charming Garry Williams as Mona’s husband as well as the young Nova Scotian soldier, Clarence Leonard, who rescued Mona after she walked out of Germany. In fact, the real Clarence Leonard’s son attended this show.

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Garry Williams as Nova Scotia soldier Clarence Leonard giving the freed Mona Parsons a cup of tea. (Bruce Dienes)

Co-writers Hill-Lehr and Sarah Jane Blenkhorn, of SarAndipity, plan to present The Bitterest Time again. “Given the power of the story and the interest it attracts, we think that it has a future here, and beyond Nova Scotia as well,” says Blenkhorn.

That would be great because this is a woman’s war story, a Nova Scotian story and, as another glimpse into the horrors of war, a warning about the savagery of humans beings if their cruelty is left unchecked.

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Sharleen Kalayil as a prison guard with Amanda LeBlanc as Mona Parsons and Rachel Hastings as Wendy. (Bruce Dienes)

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