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Critical Mass

Star Bar's production of Mass Appeal strikes a nerve



Here comes Mass Appeal, the captivating theatrical unraveling of a timeless and timely issue: Can honesty and religion live under the same roof?

A two-man play written in 1981 by Bill C. Davis, Mass Appeal takes place in a Catholic church and the office of Father Tim Farley (Keith Smith). When Mark Dolson (Jesse Bonnell), a young seminarian, tries to get into the priesthood while holding onto his modern ideals and honesty, Father Farley councils him to compromise his values if he wants to become ordained.

The significance of this production couldn't be more relevant to current events. It's ironic that the play starts with Father Farley holding a Q&A session with the parish given the incredible lack of dialogue in the wake of the Catholic pedophilia scandals. (Like the parent who answers "because I said so" to their children's tricky questions, the church would settle the scandal not by the letting the parishioners dictate zero tolerance, but by hand-picking a panel of cardinals to toe the line of forgiveness.)

During this homily-Q&A, Dolson frequently interjects his opinion, making it clear that he believes, among other things, that the priesthood should include women. Dolson quickly finds out that Father Farley, no stranger to the white lie or evasive response, only wanted the semblance of an open discussion, not the real deal. Farley interprets Dolson's remarks as rebellious heckling and calls him to his office.

In the office we see that Dolson has a sincere heart. He wants to elevate himself and the spiritual life of the church by challenging the parish on spiritual matters, writing sermons of anti-consumer sentiment, and otherwise rattling others who, like himself, sit through mass trying to suppress nervous laughter.

While laying his honesty on the table, Dolson also confesses his "former" bisexuality -- one of many freedoms not condoned by the priesthood -- believing his eagerness to take the vow of celibacy will make his confession irrelevant. In the end, however, Dolson's sexuality becomes a ready excuse for the seminary to avoid issues of honesty and punish the young seminarian for his openness.

Overall the performances needed about a week's polishing. It's well staged and felt easy and comfortable but if they threw us some curves, it might disturb the balance nicely. What we need is a little more drama in the drama, and when they get there, this production will explode because the cast is really good. Keith Smith was at times actually too believable as Father Tim Farley -- i.e. he mumbles and shuffles just exactly like an alcoholic Monsignor -- but there's a point at which we really need a heightened stage version to keep us from nodding off like a real-life parishioner. Palmer High School senior Jesse Bonnell plays Mark with all the requisite discomfort of a frustrated idealist and with something extra thrown in, a quality that's honest and innocent and exciting at the same time.

-- Marina Eckler

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