Michel Tremblay’s Manon, Sandra and the Virgin Mary is known in French as Damnée Manon, Sacrée Sandra, a title that emphasizes the irony at the heart of the play. In this 1977 two-hander, vividly revived by Pleiades Theatre at Buddies in Bad Times, Tremblay finds the profane in the sacred and the sacred in the profane.
The 80-minute piece takes the form of two monologues that alternate and occasionally entwine. Manon (Irene Poole), a sour spinster, reveals her obsessive and very personal relationship with God. Sandra (Richard McMillan), a narcissistic drag queen, revels in his own obsession with sex. As they speak, Tremblay plays on the similarities between religious and carnal ecstasy, and the way both draw on rituals and fetish objects. For Manon, the latter is an enormous wine-red rosary; for Sandra, some outrageous green lipstick and nail polish.
Tremblay also uses the drama to finish off his great nine-play Belles-Soeurs cycle, which began in 1968 with the seminal Les Belles-Soeurs. Sandra is a minor figure from the plays Hosanna and Saint Carmen of the Main, while Manon is one of the daughters of the wretched couple in Forever Yours, Marie-Lou. Here, he gives the pair the spotlight, partly to flesh out their characters, partly to show his own hand as their creator. Manon ends with a postmodern flourish in which the playwright’s presence hovers over the work as distinctly as the huge image of the Virgin Mary that looks down upon the actors in John Van Burek’s production.
Van Burek, Pleiades’s artistic director, did the play’s first English translation (which premiered in 1979 at Vancouver’s Arts Club) and this is his chance to prove to us that the work has held up over time. We have reason to be skeptical after recent major revivals of Saint Carmen (by Canadian Stage and the National Arts Centre) and Hosanna (by the Stratford Festival) came off less like vital works of art and more like museum pieces.
Manon, happily, does not. Although there is no attempt to disguise its time period – in one amusing 1970s reference, Sandra refers to his erect penis as a “towering inferno” – it speaks as directly to us now as it did to audiences three decades ago. Manon may be a Roman Catholic, but her rigid belief and its roots in hatred and fear make her one with religious fanatics of all faiths. Sandra, meanwhile, would now be easily recognized as a sex addict, with homoerotic fantasies that are as candid as anything we’ve heard on the Buddies stage in recent seasons.
Van Burek and his excellent actors bring out the humour in these characters as much as the pathos. Poole, black-clad and sparrow-like, sits tightly in a rocking chair, her eyes wide with fervour. Comical in her self-righteousness, she’s also laughably unaware that her behaviour is the antithesis of Christian. She speaks to God with the bitterness of a long-suffering wife whose devotion has yet to be rewarded.
On the other side of the stage, McMillan’s witty Sandra reclines before a dressing table in a white robe, like a great, gay seagull, his long hands moving languidly like torpid wings. With his oval face and French accent, he could be a Québécois Oscar Wilde – albeit one with no reservations about discussing his sexual predilections.
Despite the contrasts, however, the two are birds of a feather. Tremblay gradually discloses how they both share, not merely compulsive personalities, but also a past. And their fixations have become a way to transcend a narrow, working-class environment. At the same time, their passions grow virtually indistinguishable. In the ultimate irony, it’s Poole’s Manon who delivers the play’s big orgasmic soliloquy, as she is transported by the most divine of lovers.
Teresa Przybylski’s elegant set and costumes, and Itai Erdal’s painterly lighting, build on Tremblay’s poetic symbolism. Manon and Sandra, with their black-and-white colour schemes, are enclosed in a frame the hue of dirty snow. It turns a lurid green when Sandra indulges his fantasies involving that avocado lipstick. In the course of the show, the aforementioned image of the Virgin – Manon’s icon and Sandra’s blasphemous drag persona – slowly reveals itself upstage, finally turning the play into the three-hander that its new title suggests.