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Theatre Conspiracy’s ‘Noli Timere’ Gothic tale that pits flawed priest against Prince of Darkness


Noli Timere 01SWidely recognized as one of the major poets of the 20th Century, Seamus Heaney spent more than 50 years scrutinizing the human condition in an effort to derive meaning from life’s greatest difficulties. Ironically, his final words were in Latin, not English, contained in an enigmatic text to his wife, Marie. “Noli timere,” he told her simply. Do not be afraid. In his eponymous play on stage now through May 20 in the Foulds Theatre at the Alliance for the Arts, playwright Jared Michael Delaney Noli Timere 05Stests whether Heaney’s advice is possible when a simple priest encounters the Prince of Darkness incarnate.

Noli Timere (Don’t Be Afraid) begins with a frantic knock at a rectory door at 3:00 a.m. It is answered by Father Thomas, who’s fallen asleep reading Scripture in an armchair beneath a soaring pointed arch supported by richly moulded ribs. In rushes a man in a pressed cocoa-colored business suit, tie akimbo, hair slightly dishevelled. After a period of awkward stammering, he finally blurts out that he needs to see the monsignor Noli Timere 06Sbecause he’s possessed and in need of exorcism.

Thus begins a Gothic tale (hence the vaulted arch and cloistered, almost claustrophobic abbey) in which an event from Father Thomas’ past threatens his descent into spiritual disintegration if not eternal damnation.

In the tradition of the Apostle Thomas (who refused to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead Noli Timere 11Suntil he could place his fingers in the wounds in his hands, feet and side), the priest refuses to believe the man’s story until he provides proof of demonic possession. Of course, Father Thomas isn’t wrong here. Before an exorcism can be performed on anyone there must be proof of demonic possession as opposed to mental illness or some other medical condition.

But one should always be careful what they ask for, and sure enough, the man in the cocoa suit begins confronting Father Thomas with facts about the priest’s Noli Timere 12Schildhood, his devoted sister, Mary, and his dearly departed mother that only a supernatural being could know. Even though Thomas is still loathe to believe he’s addressing Lucifer, the audience is now convinced that the man who’s entered the rectory is Satan himself. That’s in small part attributable to the stellar performance of Ken Johnson.

Noli Timere 18SPlaying Satan takes a special quantum of audacity because it invites the inevitable comparisons to infamous portrayals of Mephistopheles in film throughout the years. Pacino may have very well set the standard in The Devil’s Advocate. He based his performance on Walter Huston’s work as Mr. Scratch in the 1941 classic The Devil and Mr. Webster. But Jack Nicholson was equally memorable in The Witches of Eastwick (1987), as was Peter Stormare in Constantine (2005) and Rosalinda Celentano in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2005). But for purposes of Noli Timere, Ken Johnson’s Noli Timere 19Sperformance will have you thinking of a cross (no pun intended) between De Niro in Angel Heart (1987) and that “man of wealth and taste” from the Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil. Although capable of verbal outbursts, Johnson plays his role with an eerie calm that belies an ancient, almost weary malevolence. If you’re a fan of any of the aforementioned movies, this is a play you don’t want to miss.

Of course, any strong antagonist needs to be opposed by a capable but deeply flawed protagonist, and Delaney’s priest unqualifiedly fits that bill. Thomas Marsh turns in his best performance to date (he’s been Woodnut in The Nether, the Noli Timere 21Sevil Mr. Burns in Mr. Burns: The Post-Electric Play and Squeamish in The Country Wife all for Theatre Conspiracy). He’s deeply conflicted, incongruously secular and probably the last person a Catholic Bishop would ever choose as his diocese’s designated exorcist. Thomas manifestly, almost painfully, lacks the piety, knowledge, prudence and integrity of life mandated by the Canons that govern who may serve in this capacity.

But while Thomas may not be the local exorcist-designate, that doesn’t necessarily mean he lacks the tools to send the devil packing.

Dena Galyean plays the role of Mary. She’s no saint, but she is clearly devoted Noli Timere 22Sto her priestly brother. Unfortunately, her character is somewhat superfluous to the battle being waged between The Tormentor of Souls and the seemingly soulless Father Thomas. It’s a curious proposition because there’s potential in the play for an interesting subplot. In one scene, she tells her brother that she had an encounter with an elderly woman who recently moved into her apartment building and warned her that “they’re coming” for her brother, “the exorcist.” Chillingly, the woman disappears after the encounter and the building’s superintendent tells Mary that the apartment she was ostensibly living in has been Noli Timere 24Svacant for several months!

According to Delaney, the Catholic Church keeps the identity of its exorcists secret lest the forces of evil attack the members of their families in an effort to vanquish those who would cast our demons. But the script does not really develop this theme or invest Mary with the level of fear and trepidation one might expect of someone who’s being threatened by Beelzebub and his minions. In fact, Satan never really threatens Tommy’s little sister in his attempt to cause his ruination. He has bigger fish to fry (pun intended), but you’ll have to see the play to discover what Noli Timere 27Sdark secret lies in Father Thomas’ past and how it plays out in the battle for the priest’s spiritual wellbeing.

In spite of this one anomaly, there is much in the plot, characterization and performances turned in by Johnson, Marsh and Galyean to recommend you see this play, not the least of which is a dialogue which, at times, soars with an eloquence evocative of Seamus Heaney’s prose. And as both Heaney and Father Thomas discover through their struggles with their personal demons of doubt, noli timereNoli Timere 31Sdon’t be afraid. You can weather any storm.

May 5, 2017.


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