Fort Worth — Mass Appeal by Bill C. Davis is a mysterious combination of exactly what it seems and something much more. What it seems is a talky two-hander at Circle Theatre, directed by Alan Shorter. But this talky two-hander about a priest and his seminarian student pushes beyond parish politics and emerges into a nuanced look at loneliness and the need to be liked.
The cheesy pun in the title combines the title of Catholic services with the usual meaning that refers to the unthinking middle of the bell curve where most people can be found. At the beginning of the play, Father Tim Farley is at his podium in the church delivering his homily. The accomplished Jakie Cabe is incomparably comfortable as Fr. Farley. He displays such a command of the audience/ his congregation, it’s easy to lose the distinction between the character and actor. This is all a part of director Shorter’s brilliant casting.
Seminarian Mark Dolson shows up in the congregation as a fly in the ointment of an otherwise smoothly polished question-and-answer sermon by Father Farley. Justin Lemieux appears at first to be underplaying the contrarian seminarian. Dolson comes across not exactly autistic as much as odd-duck. The juxtaposition serves to throw Cabe’s showy performance of Farley into sharp relief. Shorter’s casting subtly lays out the playwright’s point: what is really required of the role of priest, out-going showmanship or rigid righteousness?
The answer lies somewhere between the two and both will need the other to achieve the change.
Clare Floyd DeVries recreates a complete parish rectory, from wood-grained wainscoting to yellowing windows. You can almost smell the mothballs and moldy carpet. The most satisfying piece of the set, however, is the pulpit that magically emerges from the wainscoting allowing us to effortlessly shift from office to church. Lighting designer John Leach obliges with the appropriate ambience shift when this happens.
The first act can feel a little by-the-numbers. Some of this is due to the age of the play. We don’t realize how we’ve grown accustomed to more sophisticated storytelling. It’s like catching an episode of Law and Order from the first season. The playwright relies heavily on phone calls for moving the plot along. The relationship between the characters is still in its static, almost stale mentorship form, as well.
In the second act, the relationship becomes more complicated. Dolson, the naïve seminarian, who was in desperate need of Fr. Farley’s formation, begins to become more important to his mentor. The lines of status blur as real need is shared between the characters. The focus of the play shifts and the question of which character is the main becomes unclear. It’ll provide great conversation over drinks after the show.
Ultimately, it’s a satisfying evening with tears shed on all three sides of Circle’s thrust stage.
They’ve certainly figured out which meaning of mass appeal they mean.