A small photograph of a smiling boy in a life preserver sits atop a table on a spare stage, as though waiting for its story to be told. That haunting tale makes up Martin Moran’s solo performance piece, The Tricky Part, a memoir of sexual abuse recounted as a private conversation between actor and audience, without a single sensationalizing turn. Childhood horror stories have become a crowded genre in our Prozac Nation, yet Moran’s genial presence refreshes the art of confessional, calmly piecing together events that altered his life in ways that sometimes seem incommensurate with his ambivalent experience of them. Never more moving than when registering surprise at the lifelong fallout from the camping trip that shattered his 12-year-old innocence, Moran sifts through his feelings of guilty complicity, wondering if he can forgive himself, though blameless, for the betrayal of his youth.
Like many an unsuspecting altar boy, Moran was brought up in parochial schools within a religious community where the assurance of safety provided an ideal cover for predators. Moran regales his audience with anecdotes involving the nuns who educated him on the joys of music, the mystery of grace, and the sinfulness of the flesh. But it’s a seminary dropout in a sleeping bag who teaches him a lesson so profound it takes decades to sink in—that evil can wear a friendly face, seductive on the surface, treacherously sad underneath.
Now in his mid forties, Moran has attained tranquility, though shadows visibly linger. Whether his piece can dispel the last of these is unclear, though the work is clearly therapeutic both for him and for certain members of his audience. While not everyone’s idea of theater, it’s artful in its artless honesty and courageous in airing its ambiguous truth.