Written more than a decade ago, Bill C. Davis's witty and touching Mass Appeal seems more timely and troubling than ever today. As the American Catholic Church wrestles ever more publicly with hot-button issues--the ordination of women, abortion and birth control, homosexuality--the futile struggle between the heroes of this two-man play has come to seem painfully familiar. It concerns matters of institutional policy--who dictates the direction of Catholicism?--and individual choice: must the ideals that lead a man to the priesthood be compromised for him to get the job he wants?
Mark Dolson is an impetuous, outspoken young seminarian with a laundry list of progressive causes and an abrasive manner. We first see him challenging wise, wry old Father Tim Farley in open debate during Sunday mass. The issue is women priests: Dolson's for 'em, the church is agin 'em, and Father Tim--well, he prefers to air discussion, not to enter it.
Impressed by Mark's depth of feeling, Father Tim arranges for the young man to join his parish as a deacon. His hope is to teach Mark tactfulness; without it, he knows, the kid doesn't stand a chance of coping with archdiocesan politics. Mark believes religion is all about telling the truth; Father Tim knows getting along in the church is frequently about withholding the truth. But Father Tim's pragmatism has become a reflex: he's as dependent on white lies as he is on the red wine his parishioners send him to demonstrate their fondness. Father Tim quite literally has mass appeal--and he wants things to stay that way.
Mark and Father Tim get along fine as friends, but they clash as student and teacher. The issue that brings their conflicts to a head is homosexuality: two of Mark's fellow seminarians, suspected of being lovers, are forced out of school, and Mark's outrage over their treatment brings him under suspicion as well.
It turns out Mark is indeed bisexual--though since studying for the priesthood he has embraced a vow of celibacy. Hoping to help Mark stay in school despite pressure from homophobic higher-ups, Father Tim counsels lying. After all, he argues, isn't the priesthood an important enough goal to justify deceiving a few bureaucrats? Should ministry to the people be held hostage by internal political pressures?
Father Tim's attitude is common in the American church; especially on the parish level, priests are often inclined to ignore or mislead the dogma-enforcing dictators who officially run things. Last summer the Vatican issued a letter to U.S. bishops specifically urging opposition to gay-rights laws: "There are areas in which it is not unjust discrimination to take sexual orientation into account . . . [because] homosexual orientation is an objective disorder," the missive said. Many local church leaders preferred to disregard it as irrelevant grandstanding from Rome.
Ironically, the letter was leaked to the press not by an antigay conservative faction but by New Ways Ministry, a group dedicated to serving gay and lesbian Catholics. And New Ways caught flak for its action--from progay pragmatists who felt that news of the letter had stirred up unnecessary trouble. Like New Ways, Mark insists on telling the truth; predictably, he's expelled from school, and the church loses another devoted servant.
Mass Appeal's extraordinary accomplishment is that it probes broad issues of spirituality, individual responsibility, and leadership--concerns relevant far beyond the confines of Catholicism--while remaining effective and entertaining as a character comedy. Mark and Father Tim are such opposites that their clashes are almost invariably funny even when the ideas that propel them are not. Davis uses a minimum of caricature and plenty of good-natured humor to dramatize the differences between his two oddball antagonists. And though much of the action takes place offstage (Mark's confrontations with his seminary supervisor, for instance), Davis manages to avoid being trapped by too much exposition, focusing instead on the emotional growth those unseen events have stimulated. A two-character play with so many between-scenes incidents is no easy trick (witness the clumsy dramaturgy of the similarly themed The Chancellor's Tale, premiered in June by Northern Illinois University's SummerN.I.T.E. theater). Without pandering or stereotyping, relying purely on dramatic craftsmanship, Davis has pulled off a play that in the best sense really does have mass appeal.
Chris Cole's staging at the Avenue Theatre is a fairly smooth bare-bones affair. Never reaching the emotional depths intended for the role, Ron Engler nonetheless makes Father Tim a credible and engaging old con man finally ennobled when he recognizes his flaws. Josh White III (grandson of the great folksinger), for several years a mainstay of family-oriented productions by the Temporary and Growing Stage theater companies, has matured into a strong and attractive stage presence. And though he needs to shake free of some of the children's-theater mannerisms he's picked up along the way--a tendency toward simplistic emotional signaling, which in this context comes across as prissy--he's in touch with the fervor and sense of futility that dominate the messianic Mark.