The Tricky Part

Also: The Secret Ruths of Island House.

The Tricky Part

Intiman Theatre; ends Sat., Aug. 13

If God is, as they say, in the details, then Martin Moran has summoned at least some higher power over at Intiman. In his stage memoir, the writer/actor takes a piercing, poignant look at himself, his parents, his friends, his religious schooling, his home state of Colorado, and the older camp counselor with whom he entered into a three-year sexual relationship when he was only 12 years old. Yes, it's a potentially indulgent tour of one person's pain—and, no, the performer and his director, Seth Barrish, don't avoid all the traps of the solo confessional—but Moran elaborates his story with the delicate minutiae of being naive and alive in an alternately awful and awesome world that does not easily surrender her secrets. The show begins to tug at your insides in ways you couldn't have expected.

The production is just Moran chattering away on a stool next to a photo of himself as a happy adolescent. The picture—with him posed in a kayak, an oar raised triumphantly over his head—also graces the cover of Moran's recently published, exquisitely observed literary account of the same story, which is much richer and even more expansive in its particulars. But the benefit of experiencing this crystallized, 90-minute version is meeting Moran himself, who breezily takes the weight off the One-Man Molestation Account you assume you're going to get when you nobly trudge in. It's only an impersonation of an intimate conversation, but it's a damn good impersonation, and blessed with a sense of humor.

The piece doesn't even begin to address his seduction by Bob, a troubled but not inhuman Vietnam vet who invites burgeoning young homosexual Moran to a mountain retreat, until nearly a half-hour has passed. Until then, we've gained amusing access to the whole of Moran's world: a prideful ("which is a sin") Catholic childhood somewhere in Denver—a town formed from "tectonic accidents and violent collisions"—where a kid is "supposed to be like the saints, but they're all holy and dead and it's hard to know where to begin." Moran's lively, wry, practiced familiarity doesn't allow you to pity him; he wants you to relax and believe he's just there to talk, and, mostly, you dobelieve it.

By the time of Bob's violation—and the adult Moran's later confrontation with him at a veterans' complex in California—Moran and Barrish have skillfully led us into and out of the myriad emotions of Moran's past. Which is why it's a bit of a bummer when they opt to break the illusion of informality with occasional lapses into unnecessary theatricality: ruminative pauses that indicate every major beat change in the tale; a sudden lowering of lights which signals a "campfire time" reading of the initial sexual encounter; and an unfortunate the-show-must-go-on coda, including a melancholy glance toward the framed photo, that attempts to round off what can't be rounded off with sentiment that is a perilous few breaths away from being precious. Hey, wait a minute, you think. You've told this story before, haven't you?

Nevertheless, Moran had the good sense to process his pain long before making a piece about it; he doesn't traffic in the kind of therapeutic paean to his own bravery that would make you feel like you should be charging him for your time. The evening has an open, natural warmth that gets hold of something sweet and young and damaged in anyone willing to surrender to it. When Moran recalls "the luck of being included" as he sat blushing at a grown man's side listening to James Taylor on the radio in Bob's big yellow truck, or "waiting for the big dream, the trigger" while his friend George brags about a barely there new mustache, he's addressing that confusing, exciting mystery of getting through life without being quite certain what's required of you. The Tricky Part captures the shifting innocence every adolescent knows—particularly gay adolescents—when you and your skin just don't seem to be part of the same body, and nobody is capable of explaining to you the lifelong process of making yourself feel whole again. STEVE WIECKING

The Secret Ruths of Island House

Chamber Theater; ends Sat., July 30

Different characters; same old story.

(Roseann Barnhill)

  

The folks at Nebunele, players in search of a subject, talked to all sorts of people, hoping in the process to arrive at a good, solid show. The lights went on, figuratively speaking, when these twentysomethings entered Island House, a retirement home, and began chatting up the elderly, with whom they admit having little previous contact—the generation gap, as directors Claytie Mason and Alissa Mortenson put it, was undeniably "mammoth." Once the talking began, worlds opened up, wells of untapped experience and springs of unheard stories. There were eight Ruths in that retirement home; the problem is that all those Ruths pretty much stay a secret.

The concept itself is daring and original, and the impulse behind it admirable. It's almost a truism these days that, in this late-capitalist, cult-of-youth society, old people are taboo, a drag on our eternally infantile Prozac nation. The remedy, however, is not to reiterate this complaint until we are numb to its implications. The show is interspersed with snippets of taped interviews, where we hear each Ruth speaking a line or two. These are followed by interpretive dance routines or abstracted pantomimes of various life occurrences—from falling in love to surviving the bombing of Pearl Harbor—performed by the actors wearing old-face masks. The result is a kind of blurring and homogenizing of experience; the audience is never given a sense of this or that Ruth but just a general Ruthness, which helps the intent not at all. To humanize someone, she must be given a face and a story that distinguishes her from the swarm, and that doesn't happen here.

Perhaps it's because the actors approach their subjects with an attitude that is equal parts romanticized misconception and hands-off reverence. Listening to the tapes, some of those Ruths come off as downright cranky, which is funny and all too human—we all get cranky. Yet the production does not embrace this, opting instead to portray the elderly as ignored and patronized, especially by the Cuckoo's Nest–lite crew of the nursing home. A leavening sense of humor would have helped locate each individual Ruth in the all-encompassing reality of everyday life. All old people, just by virtue of being old, did not lead immaculate and heroic lives full of splendid survival stories. That doesn't mean we should push them aside, but to celebrate them solely for their oldness does them—and us—a disservice.

Nebunele is a young, new company, so let it be said that despite the missteps of this production, there is some real talent here. Within the parameters of the material, the cast is solid and self-assured, and the production moves briskly and, for the most part, with a strong sense of purpose. The musical accompaniment—a kind of rollicking, tuba-heavy jazz trio—creates a nice aura of life lived. The show is stripped down and streamlined, and if it errs on the side of romantic indulgence, it nevertheless shows a troupe with a lot of promise. RICHARD MORIN

 
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