by Gail M. Burns, AUGUST, 2005.
Actor Martin Moran was sexually abused by a male camp counselor he met when he was twelve. This relationship continued for three years. Seven years ago, Moran felt a deep desire to write about his experiences and how that shaped him into the man he has become. So he wrote a memoir entitled “The Tricky Part” recently published by Beacon Press. An invitation to read part of this book aloud morphed into a one-man stage version of “The Tricky Part” which won Moran an Obie in 2004, and led to an invitation from Tina Packer to bring the show to Shakespeare & Company.
This brief performance falls more into the category of storytelling than theatre. I consider storytelling to be a form of theatre, and frequently list storytelling events on GailSez.com for that reason. But if for you theatre has to have costumes and props and dialogue, you will not find those things here. What you will find is a fine actor and storyteller seated on a stool speaking to you of the pains of growing up. In Moran’s case this means the pains of growing up gay, Catholic, and the victim of sexual abuse. Still, when we look back at our adolescent selves, we all laugh as much as we cry, and there is plenty of humor in Moran’s tale, especially in the early minutes.
I do not for a minute want to minimize the horror of what happened to Moran, but the reason that his story works in a broader sense is that he recognizes that we all carry inside of us a wounded child who it is nearly impossible to placate or release. The wound may be large and obvious, like his, or it may be small and senseless, like being the shortest or the tallest or being turned down for an athletic team or a role in the school play, but we each treasure and covet our private hurts and years and years of living cannot erase them. Moran takes us on his journey to try to confront his pain, and to investigate the tantalizing question, “Would my life ultimately have been better or worse had the injury never occurred?”
In Moran’s case this journey takes him to confront his abuser almost thirty years to the day from when the initial attack occurred. His abuser, called Bob, is now an elderly invalid in a California Veterans’ home. Moran, while not a household name, is a steadily working actor, which is no mean feat. He lives in Manhattan with his partner. He has survived teenaged suicide attempts and self-destructive sexual behaviors. He is ready to look Bob in the eye and say “What you did was wrong. You hurt me. I was a child and did not have consent to give.”
We have all heard the old saying “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” If we are to survive life’s wrongs, we have to emerge stronger, and that is what Moran ultimately does. Part of that process is relinquishing the control our abuser has or had on us, and the control we wish to exert on them in return. Listening to Moran’s retelling of his adult encounter with Bob, as well as his heart-wrenching account of that first abuse, is enlightening and freeing. If he can wrestle with such a big demon (or is it an angel?) and emerge whole and unscathed surely I can win the battle with the people and places that have wronged me over the years.
Yet the one battle Moran confesses that he hasn’t won is the one with his inner child. He has on stage with him a photograph of himself at twelve, taken by Bob just a few weeks after the abuse began. Those of us who make it grow up and move on, but that little piece of us never does. Having just produced J. M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan” I could go on for paragraphs about the tragic tale of the boy who never grows up and the anguish that ultimately causes him and everyone who loves him. In order for us to survive, we have to be like Wendy and release Peter to fly back to Neverland. From time to time he may fly back in the nursery window, but ultimately his place is in the past with the pirates and the mermaids and other childhood boogeymen. The past may be terrifying, but it has already had its way with us and can only hurt us again if we let it. This is a lesson we need to learn over and over and over again. The Moran on the stage and the boy in the photograph are simultaneously the same person and completely different people, having established, like conjoined twins, an uneasy coexistence with a shared heart.
Shakespeare & Company has wisely scheduled “The Tricky Part” in the intimate Spring Lawn theatre with an 8:30 p.m. curtain time. This ensures darkness, which is ultimately the set for Moran’s show. He evokes the telling of tales around a campfire, an act which simultaneously isolates and gathers together its listeners. During the most difficult part of his story the lights become very dim and you are left with sound and imagination to lead you through the horrors.
I am not a gay man. I am not the victim of sexual abuse. I was not raised Catholic. This show may be either particularly painful or particularly meaningful to people in one or more of those categories. Certainly this is not a show for children and I would not bring anyone under 18. There is some, not a lot but some, very graphic sexual material.
Those warnings having been issued, I found attending “The Tricky Part” to be overall an uplifting and satisfying experience. It is fascinating theatre. It is an important story grippingly told. It brings you face to face with your own wounds and inspires you to cope with them in new ways. And it gives you a great admiration for Moran as an actor, a writer, and a person.
The Tricky Part runs in repertory through September 4 at the Spring Lawn Theatre at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, MA. The show runs 90 minutes with no intermission. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-637-3353.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005