Canoe Hear Me Now? Moran paddles his childhood abuser with therapy-speak.
Canoe Hear Me Now? Moran paddles his childhood abuser with therapy-speak.

By now, Martin Moran’s probably told the story he tells in The Tricky Part a thousand times to various friends, lovers, and (one assumes) therapists, not to mention the theater audiences who caught the show’s Obie-winning off-Broadway run in 2004 or at any of its subsequent stops across the country. He’s also written it up in a memoir that, unlike the show, bears an unwieldy Oprah-esque subtitle—the words “journey” and “forgiveness” figure prominently—and recounted the bullet points to arts reporters around the world.

Not that you’d know it to listen to him.

That’s a compliment, because ordinarily the act of turning an experience into a story—even an experience as charged with emotion as Moran’s childhood sexual abuse—has a way of calcifying that experience. Over time, the narratives we impose and the details we cite to give stories their life and structure tend to harden over the actual events that inspired them with each retelling, layer by layer.

Which is why it’s so surprising and ultimately affecting to see how freshly available Moran makes himself to events he’s described so many times before. As he talks, he seems to search the air in front of him for the right word, and when he eventually seizes upon it, you can hear a mixture of excitement and satisfaction—yes, that!—in his voice. When pauses occur, they seem to well up from somewhere in his chest, keeping some half-formed thought at bay until it can emerge fully. It nearly convinces you he’s finding his way through the tale, right there in front of you, for the very first time.

All that off-handedness is pure artifice, of course, because the length of every pause has been calculated to its fifth decimal place, and the words he plucks from the ether are elegant, artful, and packed with imagery. When he lets that imagery get away from him, things can start to sound written, even precious—his description of an overweight nun shambling through the school hallway like a “big black cube of God,” for example—but for every clunker there’s a gem that glitters all the more for being tossed off so lightly. It’s a credit to the gentle, thoughtful tone set by Moran and director Seth Barrish that, more often than not, he seems to actually find the observations he makes, instead of simply delivering them.

Gentle, thoughtful: not words generally associated with boy-­diddling, or its long-term emotional repercussions. But Moran sets moral outrage and cries for vengeance aside without even bringing them to the table for discussion. Which is frankly a bit discomfiting. As a society, we much prefer to see people who molest kids treated the way they’re treated on SVU (with sanctimonious disdain) or in the film Sleepers (a gunshot to the junk).

But that’s where the trickiness comes in. Take the clear-eyed way Moran relates the 2002 encounter—you can’t really call it a confrontation—between himself and his abuser, now a sad, wheelchair-using geezer in a vet hospital. You want fury, but what you get is actually kind of funny: two wounded souls who’ve rehearsed endlessly for the moment at hand with their respective shrinks, and who start things by reeling off long strings of therapy-speak at each other.

Autobiographical one-man and one-woman shows are thick on the ground these days, but Moran isn’t content to serve up the pat theater-as-therapy experience so common to the genre. I think that’s because The Tricky Part was sparked by an artistic impulse rather than a narcissistic one—the need to explore the messy, ambiguous stuff that connects us. Moran is determined to make the evening open outward to engage us in its ruminations, and we come away feeling that we’ve taken part in something, instead of simply sat passively by as it unspooled before us.

That feeling is helped along by the intimacy of the Ark performance space and Chris Akins’ design, which though admittedly spare—just a carpet, coffee table, stool, and framed picture—manages to evoke a ’70s childhood. The evening’s sense of openness is also aided by the almost imperceptible way Moran launches into his tale: He enters while the house lights are up and starts chatting animatedly about turning off cell phones and the putative delights of Shirlington Village. It takes about 15 minutes for the house lights to fade, at which time you’ll be too distracted to notice much.

The Tricky Part is about facing up to the things we’d rather not, whether by cracking through the shell that hardens around an oft-told story or pushing past the safely intellectualizing buzzwords of therapy. Even now, a thousand retellings later, Moran hasn’t gotten “over” or “past” his experience, and you get the sense that he doesn’t particularly need or want to. “Is it possible that what harms us might come to restore us?” he asks, and the thing is, he honestly doesn’t yet have the answer. That’s probably why The Tricky Part ends on a satisfying note: It feels complete, but it doesn’t feel finished.