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In a way, actor Martin Moran was inspired to write his intensely personal memoir-cum-play "The Tricky Part" because of what happened to him in Utah.
Back in 1988, the Colorado-born actor was cast in Pioneer Theatre Company's production of "Singing in the Rain," but a knee injury on opening night laid him up for a few months. During his career layoff, Moran went home to Denver to recuperate.
He set himself to the task of studying plays, but instead found himself writing a response to a subconscious, urgent question: "What happened to you when you were 12? Tell the truth."
What had happened to Moran, then a Catholic school boy, was a three year-long period of sexual victimization by a church camp counselor, memories he had buried for most of his adult life.
"If one's life is really about trying to figure out who you are, then the writing of this was a way of uncovering a very, very buried sense of shame," the actor said in a phone interview from New York, where he recently finished a Broadway run in "Spamalot."
First, Moran wrote a one-man play, developed at the Sundance Theatre Lab, which he debuted in an Obie Award-winning off-Broadway theater production in 2004. The next year he published a memoir with the same title.
"The stage version forced me, in such an economical way, to really crack what the story is," Moran said. "If you get up and tell a story to people, particularly in direct address, you know when you're losing people. I was also able to calibrate how to take care of them, step by step."
Now a Utah-based veteran actor, David Spencer, is playing the role in Plan-B Theatre's regional premiere of "The Tricky Part," which opens Friday and plays through June 15 at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center's Studio Theater.
This spring, there's been an uptick of inquiries from theater companies interested in producing the play, said producer James Freydberg of New York's Fremont Productions. He attributes that to Pope Benedict XVI's public apologies to sexual abuse victims during his American tour.
Catholic Church aside, no matter how far society has come in talking about female victimization, we're still reluctant to talk openly about sexual abuse of young boys. Producers suggest that's one of the reasons why "The Tricky Part" strikes a chord with audiences. "When Marty has done the play, men have come up to him in a state of emotional distress, thanking him for telling the story," Freydberg said. "They say: 'This happened to me, and I've never really discussed it before in public.'"
Spencer began researching the part by listening to Moran's interviews, and talking to people who attended Moran's Sundance workshops. "It started to become very intimidating," Spencer said. "Finally, I had to throw it all way. I can't be Marty, I can only be David, acting in character."
The play begins with warm-hearted explanations of what it means to grow up Catholic, and takes on its subject's weight when the narrator, now nearing middle age, confronts his abuser. "It's not an indictment of Catholicism, or of the church," Spencer said. "It's not an indictment of some larger force, but rather 'This is something that happened to me.' "
Ultimately, Moran's play isn't about victimization or about blame. "It's a play about grace, about forgiveness," said Philip Himberg, artistic director of the Sentence Theatre Lab. "It's a dangerous story that was obviously risky for him to write.
Moran said he didn't want to write an angry diatribe against the church of his childhood. But as a man - and as a writer - it wasn't until he confronted Bob, now a shrunken, aging man in a retirement home, that he faced the most complicated part of his past.
Little happened in that visit, but that turned out to be the point. Moran realized he was staring into the face of the complicated paradox, the tricky part, of being human. "Yes, I was wronged, but yes, it made me who I am," the writer said. "Yes, he's a monster, and yes, he's a human being."
* ELLEN FAGG can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 801-257-8621.
If you go
"THE TRICKY PART" plays Thursdays through Saturdays through June 15, with 2 p.m. Sunday matinees, at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center's Studio Theatre, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City. Tickets are $18, available by calling 801-355-ARTS or visiting www.planbtheatre .org/ thetrickypart.
* A free talk-back will be held at 3:30 p.m. Sunday at Rose Wagner center, featuring actor David Spencer, director Jerry Rapier, Jim Stuve, a therapist, and John Walker, a sex abuse survivor.
* A free screening of "The Boys of St. Vincent" will be held at 7 p.m. Monday at the Tower Theatre, 876 E. 900 South, Salt Lake City. For information, call 801-321-0310.