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Danny Russel, an old friend who won last season’s Best Director of a Drama Encore Award for his CCP production of The Diviners (one of my favorite shows from last year, second only to Spotlight’s Bug), has another fine offering this season. He is the director of Spotlight Players’ lastest Dreyling Stage production, Mass Appeal by Bill C. Davis. Mass Appeal deals with the age-old conflict of new ideas vs. old ones, of accepted practices vs. innovation, of status quo vs. shaking the system. The 1981 script is funny, philosophical, thought provoking and still very timely. The setting for this exploration is a “behind the scenes” look at the Catholic priesthood – in the form of one Father Tim Farley, expertly played by Ed Mobley and seminary student Mark Dolson, impressively portrayed by Brandon Alstott.

Through these two characters, one a veteran priest, the other a progressive-minded seminarian/deacon, playwright Davis shows how even the most successful man needs self-examination and innovation, and how too much self-satisfaction can lead us to lose the very crux of our being. The story reveals Father Farley, a popular parish priest, ensconced in a comfortable existence with a Mercedes automobile and never-ending wine supply (the latter given by his adoring parishioners). He comes upon a sermon-disrupting young student (who believes women should be allowed to be priests) and the development of their mentor/disciple relationship follows. Along the way we learn of the priest’s drinking habit, his crafty caregiving strategy, and his self-preserving philosophy. We see, as well, the student’s righteous radical take on the church’s establishment, his curvy path to the seminary life and his dogged determination. Various stands are taken on issues big and small and in the end we must ask: who is the mentor and who the disciple?

Brandon Alstott as Mark Dolson and Ed Mobley as Father Tim Farley in Spotlight's "Mass Appeal"

Brandon Alstott as Mark Dolson and Ed Mobley as Father Tim Farley in Spotlight’s “Mass Appeal”

It is a well-written play, well-directed and acted. Ed Mobley moves onstage with great self-assurance, perhaps partly because this marks his fourth portrayal of the priest, but it is more likely his veteran status as an actor. Mobley knows what to do and when to do it. His Father Farley is extremely likeable from the first scene and Mobley mixes the laugh-lines in quite easily with the Father’s sparkle and “wink”. We believe he is in full command of his parish, and that his present good life is everything he wanted.

While Brandon Alstott is a relative new-comer (this show is his Spotlight debut, although his bio lists an impressive roster of local appearances), he too knows his craft and presents the Dolson character with a wonderful controlled rowdiness. It is a role that could have very easily been done “over the top”, but Alstott, no doubt with Russel’s guidance, presents an understatedly disagreeable character that works extremely well. This choice makes the one scene in which he “loses it” all the more effective. His Dolson is very confident in his forward thinking and it plays just right.

The two actors work seamlessly together and while, in reality their experience levels are quite different, this is never an issue in any way. Both present adroitly created characters that are both realistic and convincing.

The play itself moves very evenly – the only interruptions being a few longish scene changes which I charge not to this company’s efforts but rather to the playwright’s need to have his characters’ costumes so often changed from the casual priestly collar to the vestments one must wear for mass. As tightly presented as the show is, the actors may have missed a mark in one scene only, near the end, when a bit of physical acting seemed less realistic than all the action leading up to it. It seemed to me to take the actors a page or so to redevelop their authentic atmosphere. But they did and the ending is genuine and gratifying. This is, overall, a quiet and thoughtful play, with many easy laughs sprinkled in – a very enjoyable evening on a well- attended opening night.

The realistic set designed by Russel is complimented by Jeremy Tuterow’s light design and by the churchy sound bites, also provided by Russel.

This show has a two weekend run. It continues Jan 19, 20, 25, 26 and 27 with Fri/Sat shows at 8pm and Sunday shows at 6pm. Call 767-2774 for reservations

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