Jay Sefton in a scene from his one-man play “Unreconciled.” The production, at CitySpace in Easthampton, examines abuse he suffered as a teen by a Catholic priest while working on a school play and his effort to come to terms with it as an adult. Image courtesy Chester Theatre Company

Coming to terms with a hushed-up past: One-man play explores past abuse by Catholic clergy

Daily Hampshire Gazette [Hampshire MA]

November 24, 2023

By Steve Pfarrer

[Photo above: Jay Sefton in a scene from his one-man play “Unreconciled.” The production, at CitySpace in Easthampton, examines abuse he suffered as a teen by a Catholic priest while working on a school play and his effort to come to terms with it as an adult. Image courtesy Chester Theatre Company.]

As Jay Sefton recalls, it was “a real honor” to be chosen to play Jesus Christ is his Catholic school’s annual production of a Passion Play, the historic theatrical presentation of Christ’s trial, suffering and death.

It was 1985, and Sefton, who grew up just outside Philadelphia, was 13, and this was his first experience acting; he was thrilled.

That feeling didn’t last after the priest who was directing the production ended up abusing him.

Sefton, today a mental health counselor and actor living in Easthampton, has now revisited that searing chapter of his past — and how it reverberated through his adult life — in his one-man play, “Unreconciled.”

After making its debut during a two-day workshop production at Chester Theatre Company (CTC) this summer, the co-written “Unreconciled” returns for four performances at CitySpace in Easthampton from Nov. 30 though Dec. 2.

During a recent telephone call, Sefton said his play reflects his journey to gaining a greater understanding of what happened to him as a young teen, as well as the politics that have surrounded the issue of abusive clergy and how the Catholic Church has dealt with the issue — or not.

He notes that when news stories began emerging around 2005 of extensive abuse across several Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania — a 2018 report following a grand jury investigation said there were over 1,000 identifiable victims in the state, going back decades — he found himself re-examining a part of his past he’d long kept tightly sealed.

The priest who abused him, a Father [Thomas J.] Smith [ordained in 1973], was also named in these reports, he notes.

“I spent years trying to make it as an actor in Los Angeles, and I was struggling with this sense of shame and self-doubt, a very negative self-image,” Sefton said. “I would get calls for auditions for roles that could really work for me, but I’d have this sense of dread about them — why?”

Looking back, he adds, he began “connecting the dots and seeing where all this led.”

Sefton says after studying theater at West Chester University, just outside Philadelphia, he ended up in Los Angeles, acting in TV, some independent films, and theater, including a previous solo play he wrote, “The Most Mediocre Story Never Told,” which won an award from LA Weekly, a Los Angeles arts and entertainment publication; that play “contained the seeds” of his current work, he says.

He also began to get therapy in 2007, paid for by a victim’s compensation fund the Philadelphia diocese had set up. That experience led him to switch gears and get a master’s degree in psychology from Lesley University in Cambridge; he and his wife, the writer Melenie Flynn, then lived on Cape Cod for five years before moving to the Valley in 2015.

Finding artistic support

Sefton began writing “Unreconciled” about two and a half years ago, sharing some of his early ideas with a friend, Smith College Theater Professor Len Berkman, who in turn connected him with James Barry, today the co-artistic director of CTC; at that time, Barry, a veteran actor at CTC, was a graduate student in theater at Smith.

“James and I had kind of a theatrical blind date at Haymarket Cafe,” Sefton said with a laugh. “I shared some ideas with him, and he said he liked what I was doing and encouraged me to keep going.”

Sefton then brought a much more finished draft to Barry early this year, and Barry was impressed: He offered to direct the play and stage it at CTC during a window between two of the company’s regular productions.

“It’s really a tour de force,” Barry said in a recent call. “Jay inhabits all these different characters, with a full range of Philadelphia accents … It certainly has its dark moments, but it’s also full of humor and love and empathy, just really moving.”

Another key contributor is co-writer Mark Basquill, a Philadelphia native now living in North Carolina; he’s a psychologist and playwright. Basquill, whose family also dealt with abuse by Catholic clergy when he was growing up, had read an op-ed Sefton had written for a Philadelphia paper about his experience and got in touch with him.

When Sefton ran into problems with an early draft of his play — “There were a lot of moving parts, and I was having trouble putting them together,” he said — he got back in touch with Basquill and the two began working on the script together via Zoom. They finally met in person this summer at CTC.

“Mark has been such a big part of this, just as James has been,” he said.

To help tell the story, including the parts of “Unreconciled” that focus on the 1985 school production Sefton appeared in, video footage and still photos from that play, along with some other photographs and sound cues, are presented to flesh out a simple stage set.

“There’s a nice multimedia aspect to it,” said Barry.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of “Unreconciled” is that Sefton voices 12 different characters, including his late father, some of his school classmates, lawyers with the Philadelphia diocese, and Father Smith.

Those characters “play out a lot of these scenes together,” said Sefton. “It’s important to give the full scope to the story.” He uses gestures and traits as well as different voices to present the characters and develop their relationships to him as the play’s central figure.

His father, he recalls, contacted him after reading a report in 2007 about a defrocked Pennsylvania priest and “wanted to know if this had happened to me, and I said, ‘Yeah, it did,’ ” said Sefton. “We had never spoken about it … I had never told anyone in my family.”

“It was a really tough thing for him to hear,” he added. “We were a pretty religious family, and [Father Smith] was an important figure in our community. My dad said ‘We had him here in our house for dinner, and this is what he did.’ ”

Though the play plumbs a heavy subject, Sefton, like Barry, says it also offers humor — and hope. Among the issues it explores is his decision to turn down additional victim’s compensation from the Philadelphia diocese in exchange for his silence.

“I think it’s a story about confronting your past and finding the courage to use your voice, to discover different ways you can be reconciled,” he said.

“Unreconciled” will be staged Nov. 30-Dec. 2 at 7 p.m. and on Dec. 2 at 2 p.m., at the Blue Room at CitySpace. Tickets are available at cityspaceeasthampton.org. It’s considered a workshop production because different elements are still being considered for the play.

 Steve Pfarrer can be reached  at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.