Men in Black:

Past its date of freshness, Sol Theatre's Mass Appeal still charms.

Throw a fancy hardwood desk on top of a red Oriental carpet, tack a picture of the pope up on the wall, and you've got a church rectory, on stage, at least.

Rectories must present, by far, one of the easiest theater sets to pull off , and the costuming isn't a chore either — men in black with white collars. However, that isn't all there is to a "priest" play, as director Robert Hooker and crew at Sol Theatre prove while they dust off the 1981 Mass Appeal in a wholly gregarious production.

When it was first produced in New York back in the Reagan years, Bill C. Davis' play about priests challenging church tradition found a much different Catholic world than we encounter today. Clergy talking back to the establishment about controversial issues, such as women in the priesthood and gays in the seminary, were much more taboo then than now.

The dirty laundry of the Catholic Church, throughout the 1990s and onward, has perhaps rightfully transformed the church's inner sanctum into tabloid and courtroom fodder. Like every social, religious, and cultural institution torn up by the 24-hour news cycle, the church's sexual scandals have been so overplayed that Mass Appeal's central plot device is now cliché. Yeah, we get it. There are gays under them there cassocks.

This datedness, though, doesn't knock Mass Appeal's much more interesting and fundamental point of examining exactly why men become priests in the first place (it isn't necessarily running to God but running from their families or disquieted pasts) and what it is that their congregation really comes to mean in their lives.

At the end of his opening sermon, elder Father Farley (Jim Gibbons) lectures his adoring parishioners to please avoid blocking the church's driveway with their cars. "A church exit after a Mass is the most dangerous place in the world," he tells them, in a reflection that churchgoers, more often than not, prefer to keep their church philosophy in the pew and not take it home with them.

However, since the stage has always played worthwhile surrogate for church in offering real dialectics about religion, Mass Appeal forges ahead to offer the polarity of old man Farley and free-thinking young seminarian Mark Dolson (Mark Rowe), a sensitive and dour novice who has been dispatched for some lessons in parish politics.

One is warm and empathetic. The other is wired and abrasive. Dolson, rough around the edges and quick to fume, tells Farley that the monsignor sent him because, "You're the most tactful priest in the diocese. He said I needed to learn some tact."

The theory of the well-loved priest becomes the interesting heart of this short play. Should a priest be loved like a cruise director or listened to for honest insight? Farley, who plays up his crowd but doesn't challenge them, believes he truly occupies his role as entertainer. "There's no question of why the collection comes after the sermon," Farley says. "It's like the Nielsen ratings."

Just as Father Farley has spent decades charming his congregation, in his performance, Gibbons utterly charms us in the audience. Gibbons has served as a buttress (along with director Hooker) for Sol Theatre in its five-year history and has served in just about every production in those years. With his dulcet voice, the man could probably sell sand to Canadian tourists on the Hollywood Broadwalk.

For young Dolson, played with concentration and edge by Rowe, priesthood isn't about mollifying the masses through liturgical opiate but about delivering unto them the fire of his true and honest, if rash and unsympathetic, reflections. "I never liked song-and-dance theology," he says. For Dolson, it's the truth and nothing but, regardless of politics or hurt feelings.

Although this may all sound like Hallmark Hall of Fame claptrap, a real take-home pondering comes near the end. Through the pair's hearty dialogues about their youths — which shared certain forms of family sadness and dislocation — it turns out that they need their congregations more than their congregations need them.

The priesthood isn't necessarily a calling for Farley and Dolson but a fleeing from something more personal and dark. These are two needy, lonely people turning their flocks into their new families. It's a sharply interesting point that may give you pause as you park at church on Sunday morning to consider whether this church "family" is possibly as dysfunctional as the real family sitting in the car with you.

 
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