Mass Appeal: Whose Church is it, Anyway?
The setting is St. Francis Church. The time is the present (more on that later). Despite the occasional appearance of a supernumerary in the guise of an altar server, the only two characters are a glib and genial veteran parish priest and a vociferously confrontational and passionate seminary student.
Father Tim Farley never challenges nor intellectually engages either his congregation or the hierarchy of his diocese. He has attained popularity and longevity in his parish by providing platitudes and bromides to guide and comfort his parishioners. During Father Farley's sermon at Sunday Mass, seminary student Mark Dolson challenges his traditional views on the question of the ordination of women as priests.
It turns out that the Monsignor of the diocese had sent Dolson to the Mass at St. Francis in order for Farley to become acquainted with him. It seems that Dolson has expressed to the Monsignor his opposition to the expelling of two seminarians who are rumored to be in a homosexual relationship, placing his own continued presence in the seminary in doubt. When Father Farley defends Dolson, Burke assigns Dolson to be his deacon. It is Burke's expectation that Farley will guide Dolson toward conformity and subservience to authority. The result is to the contrary, as it is Dolson who changes Farley. Dolson's passions and dedication awaken long dormant ones in the middle-aged Farley.
Mass Appeal casts a spotlight on any number of issues within the Catholic Church which are as relevant today as they were twenty-five years ago. In an article (published just after Davis's Avow opened in New York), the conservative Catholic League referred to Mass Appeal as "the anti-Catholic play." Religious liberals will be inclined to dismiss this notion out of hand. Still, while it surely is not necessarily one to be embraced, it is worth examination. The Catholic League viewpoint arises from the conservative, traditional belief in the infallibility of the Pope and the top down power structure of the Church. When Davis makes it clear that it is his belief that there should be a dialogue among the Vatican, all levels of the clergy, and the laity to determine and modernize Church doctrine and policy, he is opposing basic Church Doctrine. The conflict between strict, traditional Catholics and those who would reform the Church is fundamental and may be intractable. In fact, in the end, it is Dolson's standing against authority, and not the question of his sexual orientation, that may cause him to to tossed from the seminary by the Monsignor ("celibacy is celibacy, even if your thing is goats").
However, updating Mass Appeal by changing a line here and there (i.e., references to Hillary Clinton) places it in a kind of limbo. After the profound impact on the Church of the scandals concerning child predator members of the clergy, the idea that concern about the nature of Dolson's sexuality would not concern the Monsignor is unlikely. Neither is it likely that any discussion of the ordination of gay men would not include mention of the scandals. By taking the play out of the era in which it was written, the dialogue loses accuracy and believability. Remaining in its era, the issues that Mass Appeal raises would be just as pertinent and contemporary (if not more so) than they were in 1981.
JC Hoyt is a fine Father Farley. While his Farley is always likeable, there is a sense of distance at the heart of his performance which repeatedly informs us of his disengagement from his parishioners. His finest moment occurs late in the first act when he juts his chin out to show his new found determination to escape the cocoon that he has woven around himself. Drew Parker is convincing as the rough edged, true to his own vision of Catholicism, Dolson.
Ideally, there should be a stronger feeling for the intellectual and emotional bond that develops between the two men. Possibly, the actors might develop this as they continue to work together on stage at the Bickford.
Director Eric Hafen has directed cleanly, always moving matters at a good pace. In spite of this, the play does grow languorous from time to time. However, the spark of interest generated by this literate, relevant play never completely goes out. This is a Mass Appeal that engages the mind more than it engages the heart.
Mass Appeal has been described as a religious comedy, and, to my mind, that is what it is. Although the set up, the characters and the relationship harken back to any number of other works which use these elements for cozy secular entertainment, there are very real, very important religious issues intelligently depicted here. While, at one level, Mass Appeal is easy, light entertainment, it is also a play with a great deal of substance.
Mass Appeal continues performances (Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m./ Sun 2 p.m.) through October 15, 2006 at the Bickford Theatre at the Morris Museum, 6 Normandy Heights Road, Morristown, New Jersey 07960. Box Office: 973-971-3714/ online: www.morrismuseum.org.
Mass Appeal by Bill C. Davis; directed by Eric