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We first meet James (Gerard Mannix Flynn) as he prepares to testify in a national inquiry into abuse against Irish children committed to the care of the state and church. James, now middle-aged, carries a file of information compiled about him since the age of three, when he was first labeled a “dangerous” problem child.
In his foreword to the published James X Mr. Flynn, who also wrote the play, describes the Irish “industrial schools,” where James was first abused: “They were situated in the heart of Irish towns and villages and many people must have known what went on there, yet nobody openly talked about it. Nobody talked about it at all.”
Ironically, and a bit unfortunately, this monologue sometimes avoids the issue as well. While Mr. Flynn is a formidable and versatile actor — a whirlwind of emotions, who can credibly cry on a dime, burst into frenzied laughter, and then turn somber, all within moments — he spends a significant amount of time evading the issues at the center of the play.
Digressions begin almost immediately. James takes us through his existence, from the moment of conception, regaling us with impossible memories of his birth and then details about his frenetic and fractured home life and of cycling in and out of the system. Only obliquely does he refer to the abuse that has shattered him.
James is a natural, amiable Irish story teller, yet much of his humor is distracting. Yes, it leavens a horrific story of bureaucratic ineptitude and cruelty, but do we need to be amused so frequently by James’s sometimes charming neuroses? It’s almost as if Robin Williams was telling a story about child molestation. Mr. Flynn and Director Daniel Byrne let the audience too easily off the hook by giving us our disagreeable medicine with heaping spoonfuls of sugar; this holds the audience at arm’s length from the real story.
James’s mania is schizophrenic, meandering, and often slanted. Yet, his compressed speech and some of his charming introspective ramblings seem oddly out of place for this particular tale. And, if this evasiveness is a deliberate device to demonstrate James’s fear of confronting his past, it goes on far too long. Although we have no doubt about the abuse he’s obviously suffered, it’s only within the last few minutes of his monologue that James stops trying to entertain us and states with real specificity the crimes committed against him. He hands the file back to the state, along with the shame he has carried with him all his life. He walks out, seemingly a new man.
Perhaps this tidiness is the hardest pill to swallow in James X. While “the truth will set you free," as Mr. Flynn writes in his foreword, it’s harder to accept that the truth will finally make James whole again.
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