REVIEW WRITTEN BY ANDERS BACK
For Digital First Media
It was Oscar Wilde, no stranger to confessions, who wrote that “when we blame ourselves, we feel that no one else has a right to blame us. It is the confession, not the priest, that gives us absolution.”
Many of us have things to confess. But for the devout of the Roman Catholic Church the priest’s absolution is necessary, for he acts in persona Christi Capitis, in the Person of Christ the Head.
The priest shares in the consecration and mission of Christ through the sacrament of holy orders. Because he is also a human being as well as an agent of God, the priest faces challenges and contradictions that also happen to make great theater.
When first produced in 1980 Bill Davis’ Broadway hit Mass Appeal was a revelation for Catholics who had rarely seen onstage (or anywhere else outside their own churches) such a frank (and funny) examination of priestly life in a contemporary setting. But a fine new production at the Montgomery Theater in Souderton is a reminder that over thirty years after it was first produced, the issues that engage and bedevil modern Catholicism –hierarchy, sexuality, finances, relevance – are all still part of Mass Appeal’s appeal as a drama.
In fact, this play has aged as little as the moderately priced red wines Father Tim Farley regularly drinks. But an unexpected intrusion is going to shake up all his predictable parables. This likeable priest takes his libations right in his parish office after every Mass in the prosperous suburban St. Francis Church where his benign presence has charmed and calmed his parishioners for years. Here we witness his own alcoholic “confessions” (and absolutions) – infused with wit, wisdom and weariness – made in a spirit that’s both human and divine.
Father Farley’s pleasant world comes slowly apart during a month in autumn as he befriends a young seminary student named Mark Dolson. Dolson challenges the Church’s positions on just about everything (as well as Father Farley’s patience). The priest is proud of his crowd-pleasing sermons lightened with touches of Irish humor and an eye-wink of accommodation to changing times. He asks his flock if women should be priests – and dodges the question a second later, keeping an expert eye on the size of the collection plate.
The angry young seminarian is appalled by Father Farley’s complacency. Dolson senses that the cynical priest is a natural ally. “What you believe has to be more important than what your congregation thinks of you,” he says emphatically. But a local Monsignor has been watching Mark closely for signs of apostasy and Farley good-naturedly tries to help soften Mark’s sharp edges. The priest offers him a chance to do a sermon, “something friendly with a nice Norman Rockwell setting” but Mark wants a reaction that will shake up the affluent flock and gets it – to Farley’s dismay. Word quickly gets back to the Monsignor and Mark is on notice at the seminary.
When two of Dolson’s fellow seminarians are disciplined for having what the Monsignor considers a too friendly and affectionate relationship, Mark demands that Father Farley take a stand. Will the priest sacrifice his carefully-constructed pulpit and his cynical acceptance of the status quo? In lesser hands the results of this quandary would be predictable but Davis has created a very human priest worthy of both praise and scorn.
The intimacy of the Montgomery Theater makes a perfect setting for this two-person show that requires both actors onstage in nearly every scene. Local area voice over artist and actor Charles Roney (whose voice may be recognizable from many Blue Cross and Philadelphia Inquirer ads) anchors the production with his humorous and sympathetic take on Father Farley – in fact so likeable and avuncular a performance that the priest’s alcoholism and indecision aren’t as dark as they should be. David Yashin as Mark Dolson is appropriately harried, intense and mercurial but so poised at the edge of petulance he occasionally crosses over at moments that should be righteous.
Co-founder and director Tom Quinn keeps pumping life into what could lapse into a series of static office encounters with both men pacing and circling each other in their dialogues, pausing only when the priest knocks back another glass of merlot or when each step forward – in some of the best moments – to sermonize to a flock whose patience can be measured in the volume of coughs. The actual audience for Mass Appeal enjoyed themselves with plenty of laughter and only a sneeze or two.