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One of the great pleasures of stand-up comedy is that double-pronged point when you’re both laughing and squirming. Even before Margaret Trudeau leapt on stage at Montreal’s Salle Gesù with a hearty ta-da, ready to present her roller-coaster life, an aura of apprehension hung over the entire enterprise. Do we really want to see our Prime Minister’s mom show family snaps and talk about her pain at the Just For Laughs Festival?

Yes, we do. With a top price of around $84, tickets to Certain Woman of an Age were a hot item at this year’s festival.

The evening is both what you might expect from a 70-year-old flower child whose struggles for balance and independence have been lived out in the public eye, and utterly surprising. What she has to offer is hard-earned wisdom, a survivor’s tale. Meanwhile, by some strange miracle, she’s still the winsome, slightly dippy young girl who swept a complex intellectual off his feet and stunned a country with her antics. The world’s mother, according to the Pope and Dalai Lama. A devoted party-girl whose five children, by her own account, have spent a good deal of time mothering her.

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Trudeau says one of the goals of her one-woman show is to kill the conventional wisdom around what is, and isn't, a play.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

The spine of Trudeau’s lecture-performance (she keeps a close eye on the lectern) is the diagnosis of bipolar disorder, which she accepted relatively late in life, and how facing up to and dealing with mental illness allowed her to gain control.

She was 18 when she met an “older man” with great legs on a beach in Tahiti. She didn’t recognize Pierre Trudeau as Canada’s minister of justice. After an opening gambit about Plato, all he wanted to talk about was sex, drugs, rock ‘n roll. Later, he told a friend that if he ever married, she’d be the one. Life with the prime minister was, she says, a lot like living in a mental hospital – an impossible mixture of captivity and oppressive attention. The bleak details of her perilous escape are conveyed with winks and smiles. Despite the pathos, the piece is often very funny.

The set is simple. On five screens behind the lectern are pictures from the past, a great beauty and her photogenic progeny beside famous faces from show business and international politics. But the images that resonate arise from the stories she tells. A shy young woman in stilettos, bending into a curtsy in front of the Queen, realizes she can’t move. The Queen reaches out a gloved hand and hauls her up. In another scene, she receives whispers of encouragement and pats on the shoulder from Jimmy Carter and Fidel Castro at Pierre Trudeau’s funeral. Months later, Margaret Trudeau is on the telephone, assuring her children she’s fine and busy, baking cookies for the bridge club, when in fact she’s sitting in the dark with a toke and a bottle of Scotch, sobbing.

In the pantheon of celebrity struggles, Certain Woman of an Age deserves a jewelled crown. It’s everything we crave, and just what we need. Margaret Trudeau plugged in to reality, yet still herself. Downright inspiring. There isn’t a cringe-worthy moment in the entire 90 minutes.

Kudos to playwright Alix Sobler, who is credited as co-writer, and director Kimberly Senior. The dramatic structure of the text is excellent. The non-performance, highly polished. It’s a ramble with clear intention, always harder than it looks. After debuting at Chicago’s Second City in May, this Canadian premiere was still being billed as a workshop. Let’s hope it never gets slick. Margaret Trudeau is a work in progress.

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