“South Pacific” themes parallel the lives of leading actors

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Photo: Ladd Johnson

Nurse Nellie Forbush (Sharon MacLeod) falls for local French planter Emile de Becque (Peter Calkins) in the QAC's upcoming production of "South Pacific"

The upcoming production of “South Pacific”, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical being presented next week by the Quebec Art Company, involves a cast and crew of over 50 people, including 20 leading and supporting roles, a chorus of sailors and nurses, and dozens others working behind the scenes.  At the head of this talented group will be veteran QAC actors Sharon MacLeod and Peter Calkins who have taken on the lead singing roles of the Navy nurse Nellie Forbush and the French planter Emile de Becque.   Interestingly, both have found the play and their stage personas have parallels with their own lives.

For MacLeod, the most obvious similarity is that she is a nurse in real life.  She is also an American, and while not born and raised in Little Rock, Arkansas (like Nurse Forbush), she has roots and family there and very much appreciates the culture and attitudes of that region of the United States, an important theme in the play.  As in the play (warning: plot spoiler coming!), she too has fallen in love with a francophone, although one more interested in circuit boards than coconut farming.  Finally, she admits that “like Nellie, I am also a cockeyed optimist”.

For Calkins, several of the play’s characters echo his own life.  First, much like Lieutenant Cable, his father was seconded from the Navy to the Marines during the war in the Pacific; his mission was to land on islands held by the Japanese and to radio back information on enemy troop and ship movements to the American fleet.  Like Nellie Forbush, Peter's mother is a Pacific war bride, but from Australia rather than Arkansas. And like Emile de Becque, Peter's spouse is Tonkinese (Vietnamese), which means that their two children are Eurasian, like the de Becque children who cause such consternation for Nurse Forbush.  

Thus, the past and present lives of both actors give them unique perspectives and strong emotional attachments to the story of South Pacific.  As Calkins remarked, “Thanks to my involvement in South Pacific, I now feel closer than ever to my father”.  Beyond their personal enjoyment, the experience has also enabled them to better understand the various characters in the play who must deal with the important issues of prejudice and cultural differences when people from different backgrounds are suddenly brought together.  Indeed, it was this play’s avant-garde treatment of such issues that garnered it critical acclaim (including the Pulitzer Prize in 1950) and secured its place in the history of theatre.  Its combination of comedy, music and social commentary has even lead to this play being considered among the greatest musicals of all time.  The QAC production will run December 3-6 (see community calendar or www.quebecartcompany for more information).