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Tuesday, 31 May 2011 16:51

A jest of God: Mass Appeal

Written by Andrea Braun
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The Details

It’s unusual to find a topical play to become more relevant as time passes rather than less. I was surprised to find that Mass Appeal, first produced in 1980, is one of those rarities. Of course it helps that it has a first class team behind it including Deanna Jent as director and Alan Knoll and Dylan Duke playing the two characters onstage, Father Tim Farley and seminarian Mark Dolson, respectively. These pros bring out every nuance of Bill C. Davis’ trenchant examination of institutional Christianity versus what it means to truly live a Christian life. This disconnect remains today and, if anything, is more of an issue as the Catholic church continues to lose members for various reasons.

The biggest difference between “now” and “then,” however, is that while sexuality and its expression is central to the play, the abuse of power by so-called men of God and the hierarchy of the church itself was still more or less a private matter in the late twentieth century. But Davis nails the overbearing authority wielded by the unseen Monsignor Burke, a name that resonates for many St. Louisans, and the church’s poor judgment in handling errant priests whose destructive behaviors reflect their human weakness but often took advantage of those even more weak than they. The church covered up unacceptable behavior by any means available, and here is the biggest difference between 1980 and now: Thanks to the so-called “information age,” we know about these aberrations.

When I first saw Mass Appeal, I found it enjoyable but not deep. I might still feel that way without the context I now have. We learn Fr. Farley went into the priesthood because he had a lousy childhood and the church gave him a home. However, his youthful hidebound Catholicism also caused a schism with his own mother, which hurts him still, years after her death, and he buries his pain in glass after glass of sparkling burgundy wine, all the while basking in the “love” of his parishioners as a substitute for what he thinks his life lacks. He is a popular priest because he tells the people what they want to hear in a way that makes it palatable for them. (“Song and dance theology,” Dolson later calls Farley’s homilies .) Everyone leaves mass feeling good about themselves, and by extension, their entertaining priest.

One of Farley’s tricks is the “dialogue” sermon, and he is taking audience (I use that word because it seems to fit Farley’s style better than “congregation”) feedback. One in attendance that particular Sunday is Mark Dolson who doesn’t throw him a softball question like Farley expects; rather Dolson challenges him on the topic at hand: women in the priesthood. Farley is of the old school which holds that men are priests because they are supposed to reflect the image of Christ, but Dolson points out that it was women who were the most faithful to Jesus. Women didn’t forsake him and hide when he was being crucified and it is a woman, Mary Magdalene, to whom he first revealed himself after the resurrection. His comments scandalize the churchgoers, and Farley calls the brash young man in for a talk. Dolson has trouble expressing himself without angering people and he can’t summon up enough one-on-one bonhomie to make himself well-liked. He has been sent by Monsignor Burke, he confesses, to check out Fr. Feelgood, er, Farley, to learn “tact.”

Dolson himself has come to the priesthood for reasons it would be unfair to reveal here but they do involve an active and varied sexual past. Suffice to say his beliefs are deeply held and true. He is also ordered by Monsignor to do something he finds abhorrent and a betrayal of friendship, involving two seminarians involved in what was once called a “special relationship,” which he confides to Fr. Farley. Soon enough, he has been assigned to the older priest as his deacon. The rest of the story unspools from that relationship.

So far, I’ve made this sound a whole lot more serious than it is played. There is a lot of humor, although today we’d probably look more closely at Father’s drinking than anyone does here except the judgmental Mark Dolson. Knoll works his office phone like Bob Newhart, taking calls  through his secretary, Margaret, from Monsignor Burke, as well as parishioners alienated by Dolson’s intensity in the pulpit. We don’t see any of the callers, but Knoll makes us feel like we do. Duke’s energy seemed to flag a bit toward the end of the performance I saw, but that’s not much of a distraction, and his part is demanding.

As director, Jent’s greatest contribution is to make it look like there was no director. The two men seem absolutely natural in their talks and the dances people do when they are wary with each other, uncomfortable, comfortable, vulnerable, withholding—the whole gamut of human emotion is run here until the pair find common ground. And that is the universal message of this play, that honest communication can bridge seemingly cavernous gaps, as long as both people are willing to invest the time and open themselves to another, be it a fellow priest, a co-worker, a spouse or child, even to God.

Amanda Clayton has designed and built a set that functions as office, vestry and altar with a pulpit just by moving the actors and shifting Corey McElrea’s clever lights. Attention to detail is demonstrated by a small but prominently displayed old photo of a mother and son. Michael Perkins’ sound design sets just the right mood. Dramatic License Productions is still a young company, only two seasons in, but it just gets better with each production. I highly recommend a visit to Chesterfield to see this, but do try not to cough (Fr. Farley will explain that admonition to you).

Mass Appeal runs at Dramatic License Productions located in Chesterfield Mall through June 12. You may call 636-220-7012 or visit www.DramaticLicenseProductions.org

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