Sacred Wows

"Ideally, the purpose of the church is to become obsolete."
That's a radical thought, especially coming from a seminarian, but it's representative of the theme running through Mass Appeal, the current offering at St. George Actors Showcase.

Originally produced on Broadway in 1981, author Bill C. Davis' two-person comedy is full of weighty questions delving into such wide-ranging issues as religion, humanity and even jelly doughnuts. Although played out behind the walls of a Catholic seminary, Mass Appeal is not so much a play about Catholicism as it is a play about searching for truth: truth about God, love, our responsibilities to each other and the role of organized religion. Davis' script also includes thought-provoking ruminations about job politics, the inevitable consequences of past actions and the ability of people to change.

While we often deify our religious leaders, Mass Appeal brings these leaders back down to Earth. The play investigates these important ideas through a delightful, older priest, Father Tim Farley, and the young deacon he has been assigned to teach, Mark Dolson. Farley drinks a bit too much wine and finds relaxation at the horse races, while Dolson spends his free time helping with "Meals on Wheels," playing the piano at the senior center and visiting inmates in prison.

Father Farley tells his congregants what they want to hear, Mark tells them what he thinks they need to hear. As different as two people can be, these characters grind at each other until eachis worn down to his essence, and we discover with a shock that the roles of teacher and student have become reversed. This conflict of tact versus truth produces much of the play's drama and humor, as each man fights for his own position and ends up championing the other's.

Father Farley describes Mark as "one of those priceless lunatics that comes along every so often and makes the church alive." But the priest has seen this type before andobserves, "The only problem with lunatics is they don't know how to survive." As Father Farley sets out to teach Mark how to "survive" in the church, he never anticipates how much he will learn from Mark, and their classroom provides a wonderful evening of theatre.

This masterful piece of literature is in excellent hands as director Betty St. George balances the reverence of the subject matter with the comic language of Davis' script. Walking into the intimate theatre, the audience may be reminded of church--there is a rendering of Christ on one wall, and haunting organ music fills the room. But once Father Farley starts his first sermon, the last in the 3-C series ("Current Crises in Catholicism"), it's clear the evening will involve as much laughter as soul-searching.

Minimal but appropriate, the set includes some religious icons, a pulpit and even a stained-glass window. But the sparse lighting is distracting, and the two actors often find themselves in partial shadows, breaking any mood the lighting originally was meant to convey. Costumes, however, are realistically ornate, especially demonstrated in the scene of Father Farley putting on his vestments for a Mass.

As the amiable priest, T.C. Basham Jr. is outstanding, approaching the role with a flamboyance that pulls every ounce of wit from his lines, delivering sermons that sound more like standup comedy than homiletics.

Although sometimes choppy in his delivery, Brian Gilbert brings an honesty to the role of the deacon whose world view is in black and white. The younger actor is at his best when he is questioning church traditions that do not fit in with his experiences, portraying wonder and zeal equally well.

St. George Productions has given this show an extended rehearsal time (ten weeks instead of a typical six), and that extra care pays off. The two performers take audiences right inside the cold walls of St.Francis Church--then make the clergymen's characters so accessible, it's impossible not to warm up to them.

Mass Appeal continues through Saturday, February 3, at St. George Actors Showcase, 4700 North Central, Suite 112. For more details, see Theatre listing in Thrills.