Sixteen years ago, when Michel Marc Bouchard’s Lilies or the Revival of the Romantic Drama premiered in Montreal it was considered explosive. Today, against the backdrop of the Catholic Church’s pedophile priest scandal and the Vatican’s recent condemnation of gay love, this powerful play packs a dramatic punch far beyond Bouchard’s most noble intentions. This is difficult and complex stuff, to be sure, but the emotional return as experienced in the Actors Theatre of Washington’s staging of the play is well worth it.
Set in a prison in Quebec, Canada in 1952, the memory play begins when inmate Simon Doucet (Gus Demos) summons Monseigneur Jean Bilodeau (Tom Neabauer) to his jail cell to rehash their fateful encounter from some forty years earlier — an encounter that guaranteed Doucet a lifetime behind bars. Bouchard utilizes Doucet’s fellow inmates to retell the story of the younger Doucet (Maxwell Hessman) and Le Comte Vallier de Tilly (Patrick O’Neill), who fall in love during a production of the passion play, The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian. The young Bilodeau (Joshua Drew) objects to the relationship based on his religious beliefs.
The play’s central conflict arises when Simon doubts his love for Vallier. He believes he can turn his romantic love and physical attraction on and off like a faucet. On the other hand, Vallier understands that his homosexuality is not a phase, and that his love for Simon is nothing but all too real. Desperate to please everybody but himself, Simon leaves Vallier to marry Mademoiselle Lyde-Anne de Rozier (Frank Britton). Deeply wounded, Vallier writes a letter confessing his love to Vallier, which lands up in the hands of his emotionally unstable, yet understanding mother La Comtesse Marie-Laure de Tilly (Brian McMonagle). Think Blanche Dubois with a gay son.
Director Jeffery Johnson’s innovative production is every bit the potent script’s equal. The performances he draws from the well-rounded cast anchor Lilies in the grief of love lost. Brian McMonagle’s characterization of La Comtesse de Tilly is nothing short of amazing. As she loses grip on her reality, McMonagle gains a greater grip on this fragile woman’s neurotic flights of fancy. It’s the kind of goosebump-inducing performance that every theater lover longs for.
Hessman displays Simon’s conflict with unflinching certainty, while O’Neill’s Vellier is a brave portrait of man convinced of his worth, and his enduring love for another man. Together, this gay Romeo and Juliet illuminate the stage with the believable passion of young ardor. Britton’s Lydie-Anne de Rozier is a marvel, brining to life this woman’s feminine charm while never sailing over the top.
While there is a place for productions like Naked Boys Singing in gay theater, it’s refreshing to see this in-transition theater company tackle such a vital and important piece. It’s no secret that every theater needs money-making shows to continue producing, but when surefire hits don’t produce the dollars intended, a return to a core mission with passion and commitment is one recipe for financial and artistic success. With Lilies, it looks like Actors’ Theatre has done just that.