Review: 'Mass Appeal" at Circle Theatre

Charlie Bowles

Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

Mass Appeal by Bill C. Davis is a play that appeals to people who have grown up in a church, which probably means most Americans. It doesn’t have to be a Catholic church, but knowing the social struggles that occur in church communities which spill over into a pastor’s office, and the humor those bring to the ministerial profession qualifies us to enjoy this comic look at Father Farley’s church. 

Father Farley is a parish priest with a long history in his church. He knows what his parishioners want, what they’ll stand for, and how to herd them along the narrow path. His history with them makes him popular, but may hinder his ability to challenge their thinking and habits. One day, a young seminary student comes into his church, interrupts his special dialogue sermon, and quickly becomes the priest’s responsibility. Mark Dolson, that seminary student, is a passionate firebrand ready to take on the shortcomings of Catholicism and breathe a new passion into Father Farley’s church. Along the way, there are serious philosophical questions to answer and allegations of personal sins to address. While these are very serious, the conflict between an old staid priest and the young firebrand is hilarious.

This juxtaposition between serious subject matter and hilarity takes a strong Director. Alan Shorter took Davis’ text, which is mildly amusing in the reading, and turned it into a laugh-out-loud comedic look at these subjects on the stage. Through design production choices, casting good actors, and directing their comic timing, he proved that “you can best address thorny subjects with honey.”

Circle’s stage was turned into a church office with a slide-out pulpit to make it into a sanctuary. Designed by Clare Floyd DeVries, the large ¾ thrust stage floor was covered in deeply colored wood planks with a couple of large oriental rugs. This floor abutted a rear wall, half-wood paneled with brick fireplace and wooden built-in book case under a couple of stained glass windows. Candelabra bulbs, pictures of The Pope and the Blessed Virgin Mary, and a cross adorned the wall. With Father Farley’s desk in one corner and a small bar in the other, the set allowed for a great degree of movement around the stage. Props covered the desk and bar with books, a telephone, wine bottles, and a small 70’s era portable tape recorder. Hannah Law added these and many other touches to enhance the office setting. The stage had a warmth and comfort that made an audience feel peaceful. John Leach created a bright overall wash to eliminate shadows. This lighting supports comedy and probably should have telegraphed the nature of the show, though I didn’t get comedy from the promotions. At times the pulpit slid out and Leach darkened the stage to shine a spotlight on it, which infused a sense of gravity and solemnness into the story. This also elevated and exalted the priest without raising him and turned the stage into a sanctuary that included the audience. 

David H.M. Lambert designed a small set of believable sound effects appropriate for an office. What really stood out for me was the luscious sound track he created. Music from “The Lakehouse” by Rachel Portman and “Doubt” by Howard Shore created a deeply spiritual atmosphere which interrupted the levity of the story and said, “Yes, but remember, this is also a serious subject.”

Sarah Tonemah clothed the two actors in costumes you’d imagine a priest and young student would wear. Father Farley changed between priestly robes and a black clerical suit for priestly daily wear. His young protégée began in casual youth clothing, including a running suit and casual street clothes, but then he donned his own black clerical suit when he became a deacon. What I remember most was the beauty of Father Farley’s robe of forest green over white with a golden braid design that looked like a piece of art. This choice for Father Farley added to his overall warmth through the colors, but that majestic art made him a force to be heard.

Father Tim Farley was played by Jakie Cabe. This consummate professional actor got to use his comic timing skills a lot in this play, as nearly every line was a comment on the church, his bosses, his parishioners, or his young student, comical with serious overtones. Whether it was a phone conversation with his secretary, members of his flock, or in the midst of arguments with the young seminary student, Cabe delivered his lines with strength and brevity, letting the text deliver the priest’s message and the laughs. Cabe also allowed his lines to breathe, which gave the audience time to digest the message, then laugh, and then reconsider. This is the real talent of a comedic actor and Cabe was a pleasure to watch.

Cabe didn’t just deliver lines, though. Father Farley goes through a serious personal challenge in his relationship with his student. Beginning as an experienced leader of a congregation he knows well, he is informal, jovial, non-confrontational, and ready to bend under pressure from the more vocal members. But his student’s challenges to his beliefs affects him and he examines his own motivation for being a priest. This changes him. Cabe created clear character choices for Father Farley that showed us this arc from his initial casual attitude about the role of a priest to his deep soul-searching of his reason for existence. In the end, there’s a different Father Farley because Cabe’s whole physical countenance changed. Dolson challenges the priest at every turn and we could see the Father’s frustrated reactions through Cabe’s body and face. It was this constant irritation by Dolson combined with witty remarks about the kid’s arguments that was so funny. Eventually we all need redemption and have to find humility. Cabe’s delivery of a final sermon was powerful and revealing of what Father Farley may have been like in his own seminary days. Dare I say it was Christ-like? And like his young student?

Justin Lemieux was the hot-headed young seminary student and fledgling priest, Mark Dolson. As an SMU MFA student himself, Lemieux may have related to the sentiments of the young Dolson, ready to take on the world, willing to challenge the old guard, and unwilling to compromise principals for the “tact and grace” Father Farley wants Dolson to learn. Lemieux was intense. He always faced Cabe squarely when he talked, intently watching him. His voice had a tension, almost a pleading, for understanding. For the most part his body was straight, unmoving, with feet solidly on the floor. This gave the perspective of Dolson as serious and unyielding. The arc for Dolson is much narrower, but after so many seething challenges against his mentor, in a moment of deep sorrow, Lemieux converted Dolson into the comforting, healing pastor we all crave at times. It was a touching moment that showed Lemieux’s range.

Mass Appeal addresses many of the well-known challenges to the church; women priests, “song and dance theology,” sexual ambivalence and gay priests, alcoholism, and fear of upsetting the parishioners. Yet the message might be about finding the balance. Dolson wants to be a priest because, “I know what (the parishioners) could be.” Father Farley counters with, “But what about what they are?” There was a lot to chew on here, but it was much easier because of the light-hearted approach by Bill C. Davis and Alan Shorter. 

The themes intended by Davis are there for Catholics, and likely all other denominations of church goers as well. But for me, as a theater lover, I felt the weight of a quote by Shorter in his Director’s Notes, a theme I believe is true in all the best productions. “The darkened theatre has become a sanctuary wherein we are given the rare opportunity to focus, a quiet place in which we can examine the heartfelt convictions of two individuals…and ourselves.” With this warm set, Lambert’s wonderful music, and a communion with these two actors, I found myself sitting in the empty theater afterwards, absorbing the experience. That’s the power of theater, and sanctuary.

Circle Theatre, 230 West 4th Street. Fort Worth, Texas 76102
Plays through July 18th

Thursdays at 7:30pm; Fridays & Saturdays at 8:00 pm.; Saturday Matinees at 3:00 pm.
Tickets for Thursday evening and Matinees are $20-$30.
Tickets for Friday and Saturday evenings are $25-$35.
For information and tickets, visit or call 817-877-3040.

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