|Noel Miller and Ivy Worsham-Gambier in my play A Roof Overhead|
Over the course of the past several months, Noel Miller and I have become good friends. We met at a party last Spring hosted by some mutual friends in the theater department (okay, so I was crashing their cast party for Sorry, We’re Closed…but I was invited by the playwright Cody Goulder!). Noel stood out to me. I felt like the Spirit was trying to tell me something about her, so I kept her on my radar.
Our next involvement with each other was when the above mentioned Cody cast her in staged reading of my play Evening Eucalyptus which was being put on for one of classes for one of my classes for the MFA in Dramatic Writing that I’m currently working on. Not only did she have the best Australian accent, which the play required, but she had an emotional resonance which was powerful in the role. I was impressed with her as an actress and as a person. Once again, I felt the Spirit attempt to tell me something about her.
When I found out that my play A Roof Overhead was accepted at part of the next 2012 season of ASU’s student theater Binary Theatre Company, Noel was one of the first people who came into my mind to invite to be a part of the production. At first it was as a lighting designer, since she had done an excellent job in that capacity in Cody’s play Sorry, We’re Closed, but having seeing her skills as an actress in the staged reading of Evening Eucalyptus, I felt prompted the following Fall to have her audition for an acting role instead …which became a rather providential move.
Noel rocked the audition and landed the lead role of Sam Forrest. In A Roof Overhead, the character of Sam is an atheist who moves into the basement apartment underneath a family of Mormons, the Fieldings. The conflict that ensues because of their clashing cultures and belief systems is the central obstacle in the play, as both sides make major mistakes and move towards understanding, tolerance and love. It turned out that casting Noel as the atheist Sam was a good bit of casting, as Noel was an ardent atheist herself and could very much relate to and convey Sam’s character from a very real, natural place. At one point during rehearsals Noel jokingly yelled at me, “Mahonri, stop writing what’s in my head!” It turns out Sam and Noel were working from very similar places.
|Noel Miller in A Roof Overhead|
In the meantime in Noel’s life, just prior to auditioning for A Roof Overhead, Noel had met a very important person in her life, Drew Nichols. Drew is a Mormon musician and composer who Noel had met in a theater design class and they had hit it off famously. However, their vastly different religious beliefs was the big elephant in the room, of course, and something they were both reticent about. They eventually started dating, though, and Noel began attending Church and Institute with Drew and her other new Mormon friends.
During rehearsals and cast parties for A Roof Overhead, Noel and I had a number of conversations about religion, and the conflict of interests she was having with Drew and her very strongly held atheistic beliefs. Although my former missionary instincts were yelling at me to “Testify! Testify! Testify!”, yet I held back, feeling as if she needed space during this time of soul searching and, above all, acceptance, friendship and love. Drew and Noel’s Institute friends were taking care of bringing Noel to Church, etc. I wanted to make sure that Noel understood that we loved and cherished her whether she was a member of the Church or not. That, after all, was the whole point of my play.Â
|Daisy Fielding being too aggressive in A Roof Overhead|
A Roof Overhead was an interesting backdrop in this regard, as it deals with both faith and doubt. My testimony of the Restored Gospel is written all over that thing, but there are also a lot of controversies in the LDS Church and its subsequent culture that the play deals with. Noel and I often talked about some of that challenging material, and she was able to see a broader view of Mormonism…its glories, its spirituality, its cultural weaknesses, and its conflicts. The character of Sam doesn’t go easy on Mormonism, just as the Mormon characters don’t go easy on atheism. So the conflicts that result in the play can be quite explosive. In effect, the struggles that Noel was experiencing within herself were also being played out on stage every night as she played the character of Sam. The providential, almost mystic parallel here was not lost on either of us, and we discussed it with each other several times. The timing was almost eerie.
Yet I assumed, at least for the time being, that things would be remain the same for Noel as they had for Sam in the play. That she would find understanding and love within the “family” of Mormonism, but that she would continue on in (what seemed to be) her deeply rooted atheism. When the last production of the run ended, Noel’s ending seemed to be the same as Sam’s… that, despite some conflicting feelings in her heart, she would remain a steadfast atheist, although a more understanding and changed one.
|Peanut Butter Fight! in A Roof Overhead|
Noel continued to go to Church with the kind, talented, intelligent, funny, charming, and wonderful Drew. She felt a special connection to her friends at ASU’s Institute of Religion. She went to a lot of activities, etc. When she would talk about her experiences with them, a light came in her eyes, and I could tell she was longing to be with them… to really be with them. They were true friends to her and she knew it… and she seemed almost jealous of the light, peace, and buoyant happiness they carried. And, of course, there was that special flame that she carried for Drew.
And that affection and love she had for Drew really did seem to be a problem for her. Neither she nor Drew wanted Noel to join the religion because of Drew or their friends or the welcoming, loving culture she was finding in her experiences with the Church. She described going to Church with an ultra-critical attitude–picking apart things, seeing organized religion as merely an institutional that tried to fulfill emotional needs. Despite her deep desire to be counted among this people, there was a part of her that tenaciously held to her high and lonely independence. And her deep seated honesty. She wasn’t going to make such a major life decision for anyone else but herself.
|The Fieldings pray… and Sam does not.|
So she and Drew broke up. When I saw her a few weeks ago and she told me this, I was disappointed (I really liked her and Drew together), but I told her I wasn’t particularly surprised. Their worldviews were, after all, so different. However, she did say that she was still hanging out with that group of Mormons and (tantalizing!) frequenting the LDS Institute activities, etc. And, although she didn’t let it slip at the time of our conversation, she was still going to Church. She wasn’t done yet. Not yet.
In this mode Noel was going to seek for herself. Not for Drew, not for her friends, not for me…if her Heavenly Parents and Jesus Christ were going to talk to her, they were going to talk to her. She described feeling a startling Peace at Church. Yet she still resisted this Peace. Emotional fulfillment, that’s all it was! She wasn’t going to fall for it!
|Sam has fun with the Fieldings|
In the meantime my last conversation with Noel was still working in the back of my mind. I still had this needling feeling that she was important, that the Lord was seeking after her. Some of the cast of A Roof Overhead were going to have a get together to read one of my plays (we really missed each other! We were a very tight cast…) and I was debating which one to have them read. Should I choose another religious one, or had they heard enough of my Mormon beliefs? I certainly didn’t want to alienate any of these, my dear friends. In the end I felt prompted to choose Yeshua, which is my play based on the life of Christ in the Gospels. In my heart of hearts, I thought there might be a message for Noel and other interested parties in the play.
To my happy shock, when I got there, Noel had a surprise for me. I suspected something was up when Drew was there…they were back together? Could it be…? Yes, indeed. Noel told me she had been seeing the missionaries… and she was getting baptized!
Yesterday I went to the baptism at ASU’s Institute Building. The time of year was appropriate… Noel had been born on Christmas (thus the name) and to have it this close to Christmas and her birthday, in my mind, was special. It was the first time I had ever sung Christmas carols at a baptism. I had never seen Noel so happy. So exuberant! The Noel I knew was subdued, careful, with kind of distant sadness that often sat in her eyes. This Noel was someone new…a woman transformed! She was nearly bouncing off the walls, she was so happy. It was as if her heart was a bird in rib cage, caught, but now it had been set free and she was going to take that chance to fly.
The ordinance was beautiful, a musical number was stirring, the talks were heartfelt, and the closing hymn of “I Know My Redeemer Lives” was moving. The Spirit worked upon me throughout the whole meeting and I was as the two travelers on the road to Emmaus who encountered the resurrected Christ… “Did our hearts not within us burn?”
But the most powerful moment for me was when Noel got up to the podium and bore her personal testimony. She detailed her journey to the Gospel… Drew, Institute, A Roof Overhead, Church… and then she got to the climactic moment of her journey. She had been sitting in Church, still resisting the way that religion brought emotional fulfillment. Then the sudden realization came upon her. She asked herself, “What’s so wrong with being happy?” She accepted the peace that the Lord was offering her.
In A Roof Overhead the character of Sam Forrest doesn’t join the Church. For that narrative to “work,” for the message of love and tolerance I was trying to convey, it was very important that she did not do so. However, Noel has given me hope for my own character. If Noel could make that journey, if she could submit to that Peace and Joy, and sacrifice those things which were bringing her life down, maybe then there was hope for Sam as well. Fortunately, Jesus our Redeemer, the Author and Finisher of our Faith, is a much more hopeful and giving playwright than I am. He can see beyond that little ending I wrote, and see that the story really didn’t end there. That eternity marches on with a joyful beat…the beat of a living heart, a living soul. And He certainly saw beyond the fiction I was creating, and saw that Noel was real, and He certainly wasn’t going to give up on her.
Although A Roof Overhead ends probably as it should have, in my mind now Sam still has the opportunity to move beyond that moment and continue her life. And perhaps in that supposed sequel, that eternal series, it’s shown that something in her heart changed towards God after all. Perhaps her heart within her began to burn.