Directed with equal ferocity by Gabriel Byrne, James X is fictional autobiography, and that unquestionably accounts for its power. Though the speaker isn't meant to be Flynn, he's based his protagonist's outcry on his own experiences when, at 11, he was sent for 18 months to St. Joseph's Industrial School in Letterfrack. The institution is part of an Irish correctional system for children where, it's now publicly acknowledged, abuse was commonplace and summarily overlooked.
Flynn vents his outrage in an 80-minute tirade wherein the adult James O'Neill has been summoned as a witness to the Commission to Enquire Into Child Abuse. Informed that the commission testimony will be delayed, he launches into his story for the audience. They're the ones he wants to understand the emotional and physical abuse and sheer neglect thousands of Irish children endured.
Reviewing James' assailed life, Flynn declares he intends to start at the beginning, and he means the very beginning. James is still in utero when he commences his tale of eventual victimization. He relives his birth and early childhood and only then revisits his first incarceration for stealing a few toy cars. Slowly but with increasing fury, he describes the horrors of the crimes committed against him -- without explicitly pointing out how vastly they overshadowed the misdemeanors for which he was branded hopeless when still in single-digit years.
A masterful actor, undoubtedly fired by every time he plays the piece by continuing pain, Flynn puts himself -- a middle-aged man of average height and moderately thick build -- through strenuous activity. There he is entering the world through the birth canal. There he is discovering his sexuality in a toilet. There he is being attacked by his tormenters. There he is when at last freed, feeling he has no idea how to reenter society and declaring, "We are all doing life."
Just when the observers begin to wonder what brass-tack specifics he will present to the panel he's about to meet, he at last reads (to the audience) the unflinching statement he has planned to make about incidents that went unaddressed by church and state. (And because Flynn is on a campaign to educate the public in every way he can, he's mounted an exhibit in the 45 Bleecker Street lobby as a supplement to his one-man play which follows James through his imprisonment history and details psychiatric assessments of his future.)
As powerful as the piece is, Flynn has written: "I don't think you can write your way out of trauma." That's as much an indictment as anything else of what was done to him and those for whom he speaks with such impassioned eloquence.