Catholic playwright in search of the truth



When Timothy Nolan was growing up in Mahopac, New York, he and some of his peers were friends with a deacon at the local parish — a fellow in his 20s who was about to be ordained as a priest.

“Then one day in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s, he just disappeared. I was 17,” says Nolan, who was born in the Bronx in 1963. “No one understood. ‘Had he had an accident?’ He was just . . . gone. I never forgot that and never saw him again. That was my first exposure to the organized underbelly of the Catholic Church.”

The phenomenon repeated itself when Nolan attended Fordham University, where he started writing and from which he earned a BA in Communications and American History.

“From time to time at Fordham there were rumors about some Jesuit priest getting too close to the students — male and/or female — and occasionally a Jesuit would disappear.

“Once I asked about one of the priests who’d gone away. ‘Oh, he’s on the cruise,’ somebody said. When I asked what that meant, I was told that if a priest had “problems” — a drinking problem, or sexual impropriety — he was ‘sent on the cruise.’ ”

In “Acts of Contrition,” the play by Timothy Nolan that’s at the Play Room on Lafayette Street as part of the 2003 New York International Fringe Festival, the following exchange takes place between two young priests, Springsteen T-shirted Joe Beckett and charismatic, impetuous Father Stephen, who has dropped out of sight but now materializes just long enough to say goodbye.

JOE: So, why are you going on the cruise?

STEVE: Someone accused me . . . someone said I put my hands on the kids.

JOE: No way!

STEVE: Yeah. And what’s more, Bishop Quinn is involved as well.

JOE: Who’s Quinn?

STEVE: Vicar for administration.

JOE: And [Cardinal] Brennan’s right-hand man.

STEVE: Right. So . . . I gotta disappear for a while.

In short, young Father Stephen is the fall guy. He knows too much. And is the kind of rebel — and passionate believer in Christ — who has to be kept out of circulation for a while. The play has him wrestling for his soul, and for the truth, against the Cardinal — he and his two close friends in the priesthood, Joe Beckett and Tom Messina.

The actors are Mark Gorman (Joe), James M. Armstrong (Tom), Shiek Mahmud-Bey (Steve), and Gene Fanning (the Cardinal). The director is Vincent Marano. The producer is Susannah Goldman Nolan, i.e., Mrs. Timothy Nolan, mother of Olivia Nolan, just turned 6. The Nolans live in Brooklyn, and he’s an editor in McGraw-Hill’s school division. His wife’s a playwright too.

“I am and was a practicing Catholic,” says round-faced, bespectacled, affable Tim Nolan. “I go to church, and I’m raising my daughter Catholic, but I’m trying also to teach her that no man is infallible, not the Pope, not the priest, nobody.”

Timothy Nolan is the oldest of the three sons of Tom Nolan, a court officer for 30 years, and of Miriam Sparano Nolan, fulltime mom, who have been married for 41 years.

Nolan met both Susannah Goldman and Vincent Marano when taking playwriting courses at the T. Schreiber Studio under Mick Casale, who now runs the screenwriting program at NYU.

The first reading of “Acts of Contrition” was done at the Schreiber Studio. And when Tim and Susannah founded Present Tense Productions and took over Synchronicity Space, 55 Mercer Street, just above Canal, in 1995, “Acts of Contrition” was their first show. Nolan had written it in 1993, when he sensed that the Church’s pedophilia scandals were about to break. They didn’t break big until the Boston Globe opened up the story in 2002.

“What I found almost more abhorrent than the crimes,” says Nolan, “more abhorrent even than the child abuse, was the way the Church hierarchy used the faith of the victims to keep the thing secret.

“They would discredit the victim, say to the victim: ‘You shouldn’t talk that way about Father . . . You’ll go to hell . . . We’ll excommunicate you.’ Here these kids were, threatened with eternal damnation. To me, something was very rotten at the core of the Church in this country, and I had to write about that. I mean, that’s what I do,” says Nolan with a hint of Irish grin. “I’m a playwright.

“My goal is not to bash the Church. It’s to drag stuff into the light of day, and the theater’s a good way to do that. I don’t think this is an anti-Catholic play.” Another slight grin. “I subscribe to the Murray Kempton philosophy: ‘Tell the truth, and duck.’”

When the pedophilia scandals began reaching their present proportions, a few friends who remembered Nolan’s “Acts of Contrition” told him he “should drag it out of mothballs and rewrite it. Which I did — a pretty heavy rewrite.”

Its present venue, the Play Room, is at 440 Lafayette Street, across the way from the Joseph Papp Public Theater.

The star of the show, Shiek Mahmud-Bey, was also the star of Nolan’s “The Bull Ring,” directed by Marano at Synchronicity Space, and, as Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, of Nolan’s “The Way Out,” a hit of last year’s Fringe Festival. Mahmud-Bey’s also been in a lot of movies, including the current “Buffalo Soldiers.”

“I met Shiek through Mick Casale,” says Nolan. “He’s an orthodox Muslim. His father’s Muslim. His mother’s Baptist. His wife’s Catholic. They’re sending their kid to a Lutheran school. A New York story.”