Reviewed by Nancy Oliveri
I confess … I was completely taken by Bill C. Davis’ Mass Appeal, which opened last night (Feb. 14) as part of Know Theatre’s 20th anniversary season. A packed house greeted the performance at Know’s Binghamton City Stage in a former downtown firehouse. These days, any church would be grateful for that kind of turnout.
Continuing weekends through March 2, Mass Appeal is a two-man play about the teacher-student relationship between an establishment priest and a vocal seminarian. The older man must come to terms with his viability as the head of a wealthy, conservative congregation during the first of the Reagan years, while the younger man is being vetted for suitability in the priesthood.
Its context is the Roman Catholic Church. Its themes, however, are timeless and universal, which is what the word “catholic” really means. Exploring love, truth, humanity and ambivalence, the play, first presented by Know in 1997, succeeds on all counts. The lights come up on Tim Gleason, Know’s artistic director, standing in the pulpit, reprising his role as Father Tim Farley.
The Catholics in the audience, whether current or lapsed, will be hard-pressed not to bless themselves at the beginning of Father Farley’s service, so believable is Gleason’s performance and so evocative is the set of a Catholic sanctuary. I almost thought I would ask “Father Gleason” if he had time to hear my confession.
Farley’s reluctant protégé, Mark Dolson, is played by Zac Chastain. The soon-to-be-deacon is a handsome young man at the crossroads between hedonism and chastity. At Father Farley’s Mass, Dolson is fearless, engaging in an edgy dialogue with the older priest. To know this candidate for the priesthood is to love his spirit, but certain bigotries will come into play. Chastain immerses himself in the part with a perfect blend of naiveté, righteous indignation, humor and tenderness.
These two performances, Gleason’s and Chastain’s, may be among the best I’ve ever seen on the Know stage, where there is nary a bad one to begin with.
While the script, with humor and pathos, allows the characters to explore such questions as “why come to church?” and the role (or lack thereof) of women in Catholic ministry, it also provides context for the evolutionary pains the Roman Catholic Church has experienced in the past few decades. This does not make it dated but, rather, instructive, and anticipates some of the earth-shaking statements made by the present Vicar of Rome, Pope Francis. (Coincidentally, the play is set at a fictional St. Francis Church.)
Rev. Tim Taugher, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Church in Hillcrest, is acknowledged in the program for the loan of some authentic Catholic artifacts, which lend a genuine look to the church portion of the set. The large crucifix is a ringer for one that used to hang in St. Ambrose in Endicott before that one was replaced by a nearly life-sized figure. Pastor Farley’s rectory office owes its upscale look on stage to the loan of office pieces from Upstate Office Furniture, which also is thanked in the program.
Rev. Taugher and Rev. Michael Galuppi, pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel in Endicott, will be on hand to take questions at the end of two of the performances: Father Galuppi on Feb. 22, and Father Taugher on March 1.
One of the best reasons to go see Mass Appeal, as director Bernie Sheredy says in his program notes, is to appreciate what makes a playwright such as Davis so brilliant. Sheredy writes, “This is a play that captures the essence of what actors must do on a stage: to simply, and honestly, affect one another, and allow themselves to be affected by one another, so the playwright’s story can unfold itself.”
Add to that, the beauty of the physical space of the Know — it’s small enough and the acoustics are good enough that the audience can experience a communion of sorts with the actors — and Sheredy’s direction brings it all together.
Why go all the way to New York for a play, when a 15-minute drive from anywhere around here will bring you to this performance jewel right in our own little city, with the contributions of world-class talents such as Sheredy, Gleason and the up-and-coming Chastain? We’ll lose this last one to the Great White Way soon enough.
Behind the scenes, Amanda Marsico is the stage manager; Kat D’Andrea is the house manager and scenic artist. The faux marble floor beneath the pulpit, and the 1980s harvest yellow walls in Father Farley’s office are perfect. Pat Morrissey’s set is spot-on. I think I’ve been in that office at one time or another. Brian Nayor is a skillful light and sound operator, bringing the work of Bill Nurse, the lighting designer, and Santino DeAngelo’s professional soundscape to life without missing a beat, beep, ring or verbal cue. Good work.
You do not have to be a Catholic to really take something valuable away from this show. And you can leave something valuable behind, too, if you consider the options that are available to support the company and venue, which doubles as an art gallery.
If YOU GO: Performances are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays through March 2 at Know Theatre’s Binghamton City State, 74 Carroll St., Binghamton. There also will be a “pay-what-you-can” night at 8 p.m. Thursday (Feb. 20). For more information or to buy tickets, visit http://www.knowtheatre.org or call 724-4341.