Mont­gomery Theater de­liv­ers a suc­cess­ful ‘Mass Ap­peal’

The Boyertown Area Times - - COMMUNITY - 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 good­na­turedly 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 twop­er­son 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.


A scene from “Mass Ap­peal” now on stage at Mont­gomery Theater in Soud­er­ton.

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