Lilies, a play by Canadian playwright Michel Marc Bouchard, has been called “an operatic-vision revenge fantasy; stunning in its structure,” by the New York Times. Lilies is just the sort of play that fulfills Act 1’s mission, to bring “theatrical gems—both classic and modern—to Middle Tennessee Audiences.” The show won several awards in Canada, and an opera adaption will open in Montreal next year.
Lilies delves into the relationship between an ex-prisoner named Simon, who has spent 40 years in jail for a crime he did not commit, and a Bishop, whom he lures to a meeting under false pretenses. Lilies utilizes a play-within-a-play format, focusing on a tragic series of events that took place 40 years earlier. Through staged scenes acted out by a group of Simon’s former prison-mates (requiring the all-male cast to play both male and female roles), it is revealed that he and the bishop were part of a gay love triangle. The action transitions continuously and fluidly between reality and re-enactment, and builds to a resolution both tragic and transcendent.
Act 1’s Lilies is helmed by Matt Smith, who is making his directorial debut. Lilies might seem like a daunting show for a first-time director, given the “play within a play” format and the bare-bones staging. Every play’s success depends—to a greater or a lesser degree—on the skill of its actors, but Lilies relies almost exclusively on the development of its characters.
“Essentially,” Smith pointed out, “the show focuses on a set of ex-prisoners using what they’ve got on hand to throw on a show for the captive bishop. You don’t have the opportunity to create specific sets and locations that convey meaning. All of that has to really come from actors creating and being faithful to their characters. It’s a play that absolutely requires strong performances by good, committed actors. I was truly grateful for the cast we put together, experienced men with theatre in their blood. Exactly the kind of actors we required!”
Smith was deeply impacted by the show from his first reading of the script, which drove his passion to direct it. As an openly bisexual male, Smith was struck by the overtones of male-male love in the play. “Most obviously, LGBT audiences understand the aspect of forbidden love: two young men in love in provincial Quebec at a Catholic Boys School in 1912?” The story of one boy willing to give it all up for love and another stymied by social expectations resonates powerfully with the LGBT experience.
What Smith finds most meaningful and moving about the play, however, lies below the surface. “The play asks a cliché question,” he explained. “What kind of love is powerful enough to transcend all? Family love, romantic love, and the love between a saint and God are all put under the microscope, as the play explores whether love can transcend even death.”
As an LGBT person, Smith finds it most gratifying that, on his reading, the play is not about same-sex love. “At the core of this play, an assumption is made: all love should be treated equally. The play itself assumes all of those loves are okay. There is this forbidden love and tragedy, but that’s not what it’s about to me. It’s about the dynamic between tragedy and love, rather than being about two gay boys’ tragic love. Yes, we’re hit in the face with forbidden love, but the real focus is on the power of love itself, the questions the author asks, and how he structures his answers.”
Smith is confident Nashville theatre-goers will be deeply affected: “At one recent rehearsal, we were sitting in a classroom without set or props, just reading our scripts. What they acted out with nothing but their voices moved me to tears. It’s hard to imagine what it will be like when it’s all put together.”
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Lilies will be performed at The Darkhorse Theatre between November 7–15. For more information, or to purchase tickets, visit ACT 1’s website, act1online.com.
Photos by Danny Proctor