Plays written more than 30 years ago can often feel dated in a contemporary context. But Bill C Davis’s Mass Appeal holds up surprisingly well. The story of two Catholic priests arguing about the role of women and gay men in the church feels as current as it did when it hit Broadway in 1980, if only because the church’s positions have remained more or less unchanged in the intervening decades.
Jay Schultz (actor and producer behind the current Toronto production) has a unique vantage point on these issues; as pastor of Erie, Pennsylvania’s Saint Boniface Church, he deals with such questions on a daily basis.
The play centres on two men of faith, Father Tim Farley (Schultz), a Catholic priest who’s been presiding over his parish nearly three decades, and Mark Dolson (Austin Scales), a young seminarian learning the ropes but frustrated by the church’s layers of hypocrisy. The parish is rocked when a gay relationship between two seminarians goes public. But when he comes to their defence, Dolson is forced to reveal his own history of playing for both teams.
“If a person comes out as having a gay past, that would prevent them from becoming a priest today, just as it would have 30 years ago,” Schultz says. “Unfortunately, the political climate of the church hasn’t changed in that time period.”
Schultz has wanted to do a version of the show since he caught the original production in New York. Though his church theatre group previously turned to easily digestible fare, like The Sound of Music and Godspell, Mass Appeal marks a new direction.
“It’s also a story of redemption, in the tradition of A Christmas Carol,” Schultz says. “Father Farley has developed a very comfortable lifestyle for himself and become more interested in being popular with his congregation than asking hard questions.”
In terms of his own positions on these hard questions, Schultz is vague, though he refers back to the gospel’s doctrine of universal love and acceptance. He’s also quick to point out groups like Dignity USA and Religious Women (a national association of nuns) who are fighting for greater inclusion for sexual minorities in the church.
“There’s a push within the church for change on these issues as more people come out and Catholics don’t want to have to choose between their family and their faith,” he says. “In the grassroots arena we’re finding more acceptance, but the church is very slow to respond.
“They just got around to pardoning Galileo for saying the Earth revolved around the sun, and that was over 400 years ago,” he adds. “I think it will be another 50 to 100 years before we see a real evolution in the church’s positions on sexuality.”
Runs till Thurs, Aug 30, 8pm
Buddies in Bad Times Theatre
12 Alexander St