Stained Glass Playhouse offers Mass Appeal with latest production

by Mark Burger

Given the title and subject matter, it only seems appropriate that the award-winning comedy/drama Mass Appeal be presented in an actual church. Indeed, the Stained Glass Playhouse’s production of the award-winning Bill C. Davis play will open Friday in the Marvin United Methodist Church (4401 Indiana Ave., Winston-Salem).

This production, in many ways as timely now as it was when first presented off-Broadway 30 years ago, involves two strong-willed and idealistic men of the cloth who find themselves at a crossroads.

One is Father Tim Farley (played by Tripp May), an affable and popular Catholic priest whose sermons — and sentiments — tend to be ones of easy comfort and geniality. He’s the parishioner’s pal, and he likes it that way. He’s not one to rock the boat.

The other is Mark Dolson (Brandon Lloyd Hicks), a fiery, fiercely opinionated young seminarian who has been assigned to Farley’s affluent suburban parish, but takes the older man to task for playing it safe. He understands Farley’s desire to be well-liked, but he doesn’t necessarily respect it — and he’s not afraid to say so.

For all his laid-back and easy-going charm, however, Father Farley isn’t afraid to speak his mind, either. After all, he’s been a priest longer than Dolson has been alive. The reasons he’s set in his ways are, he believes, valid ones — ones that have made him so popular in the parish, thereby allowing him to get his message across.

Yet, as Farley and Dolson exchange ideas and ideals — and more than a few putdowns — each man is forced to examine his own beliefs, to contemplate what makes a better man and a better priest, as well as coming to a better understanding and appreciation of each other, despite their differences.

Alvin Tyndall, the chairman and artistic director of the Stained Glass Playhouse, also dons the director’s cap for this production. When considering the play, “I read the script and fell in love with it,” he says in an exclusive interview with YES! Weekly. “It speaks so clearly about commitment, human compassion and trust. It is not only appropriate in the Catholic religion, but in everyday life — business and families, as well.”

Given that the play features only two characters, “actors who are capable of encompassing that amount of material are essential,” says Tyndall. “Both Brandon and Tripp are wonderful actors and gentlemen of quality. These guys are fantastic and a delight to observe.”

Hicks previously appeared in the Stained Glass Playhouse production of The Lion in Winter last year, which Tyndall also directed, and May brings unique insight into the role of Father Farley: He’s the pastor of Bethabara

Moravian Church in Winston-Salem.

“The actors and I have undergone a lengthy process of development and discussion about the situations presented in the script and it has proven a good opportunity for growth both personally and dramatically,” observes Tyndall. “We’re all better persons because of our relationship with Mass Appeal. The play is one of deep feeling and comic relief.”

The original off-Broadway production of Mass Appeal, which starred Milo O’Shea as Tim Farley and Eric Roberts as Mark Dolson, opened in 1980 and was directed by Geraldine Fitzgerald, who won the Outer Critics Circle Award as Outstanding New Director. A hit with critics and audiences alike, the show subsequently graduated to Broadway the next year, with Michael O’Keefe assuming the role of Mark Dolson. O’Keefe won a Theatre World Award for his performance, and O’Shea and Fitzgerald earned both Tony Award and Drama Desk Award nominations for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play and Best Direction of a Play, respectively, with the show itself receiving a Drama Desk Award nomination for Outstanding New Play.

The screen version of Mass Appeal, adapted by Davis himself, opened in 1984, with Jack Lemmon as Farley and Zeljko Ivanek as Dolson, as well as additional characters added for the film (including Charles Durning as the monsignor, Louise Latham as Farley’s faithful housekeeper, and Talia Balsam as Dolson’s sister). It was not a box-office success but did find an audience on home video.

The Stained Glass Playhouse’s production of Mass Appeal is scheduled to run through Sunday, May 23. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $12 (adults), $10 (students and senior citizens). For reservations, call 336.499.1010. For more information, call the Stained Glass Playhouse office at 336.661.4949.

Mass Appeal. (courtesy photo)