LEE -- Hank understands why his drug-addicted grandson wants to give up on life.

The 80-year-old World War II veteran tells David how he drank to cope while fighting in Europe and contemplated suicide as a way to get out from under the horrors of war.

However, Hank's will to return home in one piece took over and he survived; a message he tries to convey to the young man struggling to recover from an ecstacy and perscription drug habit at a rehabilitation clinic.

"You got to find that one thing to hold onto -- drinking doesn't help," he said in a phone conversation with David.

The conversation comes toward the end of John Morello's one-man show called "Dirt." Based on Morello's graphic novel of the same name, the actor/comedian uses humor and straight talk -- drawn from his high-risk childhood -- to help parents and students deal with substance abuse, bullying, racism and self-esteem issues.

The one-hour performance recently played to about 200 people at Lee Middle and High School, sponsored by the Lee Public Schools Wellness Committee.

"I think this has been a nice start for a conversation in our community," said Janet Warner, committee member and physical education teacher.

Morello's show weaves together the storylines of Hank, David, along with two other characters: Jason, a marijuana smoker who keeps to himself, and Melissa, a victim of sexual assault and bullying on the verge of doing harm to others and herself.

As Morello, 44, portrays each character on stage, their words and actions tie together the problems and issues he had growing up in Boston that many middle school and high school students still face 30 years later.

The difference, he hopes, is the young people in the audience will make better choices than he did.

Following the show, Morello recalls how he started getting high at the age of 12, his way of dealing with a brother's death at the hands of a drunk driver. Later in high school, he cited how a Latin teacher urged him to parlay his often sarcastic, funny wit he used to disrupt the class into something meaningful, such as getting involved in school plays.

"It was an adult telling me I was good at something," Morello told the Lee audience.

He noted that was the first time he felt good about himself and his future, which would include graduating from college with a theater/arts degree and a successful 10-year run of "Dirt."

While Morello was trying to turn his young life around, his older brother was sinking deeper into a heroin addiction, eventually dying of an overdose in 2003.

"I knew about drug addictions from the movies," he said. "I didn't know it could be the kid who slept above me in the bunk beds."

Morello currently resides in Worcester, according to his website, and is the father of a 6-year-old daughter. He urges parents to let their kids be kids and help them avoid poor self-esteem, a point he gets across with the character David, who writes a poem about how he feels about constantly being picked on in school.

"I am dirt," he said. "I come from it, I feel like it, let the dirt take me back."

To reach Dick Lindsay:
rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6233