Fishers of Men: Bill C. Davis’ Mass Appeal (1980)
The Humanities Post-Show Talkback will be after
Sunday, March 20th’s matinee performance.
©2016 by Eileen Warburton
To be a Roman Catholic priest can require the delicate balancing of complementary roles. On the one hand, the priest is just that, a priest, the link between man and God, the anointed, the only celebrant privileged to offer the sacrament. On the other hand, a priest is a pastor, the good shepherd of a parish flock, someone who offers comfort and guidance. The priest in his sacerdotal role is on a kind of mystic mountaintop, fired with the divine. The pastor has to be connected to the community, down here among us, accessible, trustworthy. At a man’s best, one role informs the other and they work together. But, of course, that’s not always the case.
Father Tim has been in the priesthood for decades, a comfort to his flock, a witty, companionable man. His comforting of his flock has perhaps veered too far into the merely comfortable. He cheers his parishioners, but doesn’t challenge them. The religious fire that led him into the priesthood in the first place has burned very low. He soothes his guilty conscience with drink and cheery “dialogue” sermons that require no preparation. He’s been on the run from perfectionism ever since he cut off his own mother as a young man. There’s an underlying sad cynicism even in his wittiest remarks.
Mark, the young seminarian, is a firebrand, filled with the sincerity and righteousness of the perfectibility of man through Christ. In his sermons—indeed, in his bearing—he poses challenges to the congregation. His message: ‘You’re failing, you’re lazy, you can be so much better!’ This isn’t exactly comfort to a community of souls who have spent years listening to the calming reassurance of familiar Father Tim. Monsignor Burke, rector of St. Francis Seminary, sends Mark to Tim’s church “to learn tact.” In other words, to tone it down, lay off the radicalism, learn to serve the parishioners. The monsignor regards Mark as a problem, a seminarian who doesn’t fit, who has suspiciously erotic tendencies, and he’ll resolve this “problem” one way or another.
So, at first the play seems to be a simple rehearsal of the conflicts of the church today. Yet, instead of the younger man merely learning the lessons of his elder, while the elder is warmed by the passion of the younger, the relationship between the two becomes more complex as they arrive together at a bond more like father and son and, ultimately, peer friends. As all of us who are parents know, the parent often learns as much about him/herself from the child as the child learns from the parent. Both men of the cloth, in this case, are challenged out of their comfort zone into personal change and loyalty to the other.
Bill C. Davis, probably about 60 today, is a product of the idealism and turmoil of the ‘60s and 70’s, the era when he studied in Catholic schools and then graduated from Marist College with a cum laude degree. Mass Appeal, his first and always his most popular play, was written after college, while he was employed in the hands-on lay ministry of working in a residential community for developmentally disabled and emotionally disturbed adults. So he knows the struggle from both sides, the academic, intellectual side of faith with its accompanying emotional conviction and the practical application that can test the deepest theoretical faith.
Davis has been a working actor throughout his life, sometimes appearing in his own plays, including in the role of Mark Dolson. He’s been a successful journeyman writer, teaching at universities, directing his own work and others’, adapting for television, and earning a number of awards and solid recognition. In an indication that his youthful idealism still burns brightly, he has run (though losing) for Congress from Connecticut for the Green Party.
The opinions expressed in this essay are not necessarily those of 2nd Story Theatre.