The New Theatre, Dublin ***
At the opening of Bill C Davis’* 1980 play Mass Appeal, Fr Tom Farley delivers the final sermon in a series that he calls Crises in Catholicism.
His conclusions, however, are premature. The arrival of a young and provocative seminarian, Mark Dolson, is to challenge the foundational tenets of a malfunctioning institution more concerned with power than truth.
The two men are a study in contrast. Farley is a “song and dance theologian”, a “Fr Bojangles” more concerned with being liked than with right living, who sees the pulpit as a place to win favour, not respect.
Dolson, meanwhile, is full of good intentions but lacking in diplomacy. He is angry with the failures and hypocrisy of the church but also with the congregation’s spiritual weakness. Both have much to learn from each other.
Davis* directs this production, and it seems particularly pertinent now, although to the scandals of child abuse and its cover-up, we must add the crisis of recruitment. The thriving seminary that Dolson attends is almost unimaginable in the present climate, where the church is struggling to maintain authority. In other areas of the script, however, Davis* has made contemporary concessions, and debates about sexuality, women priests, celibacy and abortion ensure the play’s continued topicality.
Under Davis’* guidance, both the characters command sympathy, despite their oppositional and extreme stances. Michael O’Sullivan plays Farley with a casual jocularity that masks a deep uncertainty about the church and his place within it. Patrick O’Donnell, meanwhile, allows a chink of vulnerability to shine through his steadfast performance as Dolson, driven to righteousness not by fear but by experience. In their sermons, we see the men as they would like the world to see them, but in their dialogue, we see the men as they really are. Through their relationship, these warring aspects of their personality come closer and closer together.
It is through compromise, not conflict, Dolson learns, that the church he loves will be saved. And Farley learns that he too can have a place in that future.
Until December 1st
*This article was edited on November 26th 2012.