Never mind that “Mass Appeal,” the Tony-nominated play about an elderly, too-comfortable, don’t-rock-the-boat Catholic priest and an idealistic, young-buck seminarian, was written in 1980. Patrons of the Flagler Playhouse in Bunnell won’t be seeing a period piece when the comedy-drama by Bill C. Davis opens tonight (Jan. 13) and runs through Jan. 23.
“I read and re-read this play and the fact of the matter is that it is still current,” says playhouse artistic director Paul Prece, who notes he was spurred to revisit the work after reading the New York Times obit of Davis, who died at age 69 in February 2021 from Covid complications. “That’s the irony: Many institutions, and not just the Catholic church, are so slow-moving –molasses going up a hill in January. Change ain’t happening. It takes a long time.”
“Mass Appeal,” Prece is quick to add, “is not only about the Catholic church.” He has an inside track on that perspective: Prece, who grew up outside of Boston, attended Catholic schools from elementary through college, and was an altar boy “from second grade until I was out of high school. A lot of our family free time was church activities.”
Prece earned a BA in speech education from Catholic University in Washington, D.C., an MFA in Theater — Directing and Performance from Florida State, and a Ph.D. from the University of Kansas in Theory and Criticism and African and African-American Drama. He worked in all facets of theater in companies throughout the United States, and taught theater for 30-plus years at Washburn University in Kansas before retiring and moving to Ormond Beach in 2019.
“ ‘Mass Appeal’ is a very political play,” Prece says. “It’s about teachers and students. It’s about mentorship. It’s about lots of different things. It overlaps all kinds of areas in our lives. It just happens to be situated in the church. People don’t have to be of Catholic extraction to appreciate it.”
Prece loathes the term “dramedy” – a coinage denoting “the marriage between a comedy and drama. I would say this play is a meaningful human comedy, and it has dramatic moments too. Let’s face it – the theater isn’t only about comedy (laughs). Sometimes, you know, crying is just as good as laughing.”
The two-person play tells the story of Father Tim Farley, played by Dick Kirtley, and the impetuous, young priest-in-training Mark Dolson, played by Jonathan Quintana. The play takes place in the pulpit of St. Francis Parish Church and in Father Tim’s office. In the opening scene, Father Tim is giving what he calls a “dialogue sermon,” during which he invites the congregation to share their thoughts and opinions. But the elderly priest becomes incensed when his views on church doctrine are challenged by the rambunctious Dolson.
After that encounter, Farley asks Dolson to meet him in his office, and a short time later the elder priest becomes the mentor of the young seminarian.
“Father Tim is very settled into his church – he doesn’t like for things to be rattled, he likes to be in control,” Kirtley says. “His people like to donate to him and he’s not afraid to take a taste of the bubbly, as he calls it. He’s very well-established and comfortable in his role. He’s very smart, very well loved, and he does accept the challenge of this youngster who comes aboard.”
The 77-year Kirtley is a Vietnam veteran who served 20 years as a naval officer and then worked in the defense industry. Upon retiring, he and his wife, Debbie, moved to Palm Coast 16 years ago, and Kirtley promptly began working on what he calls his “bucket list,” which included starting and running a motivational speaking business for 10 years, then doing six years of standup comedy “all around Florida.”
Kirtley says he has been in theater “pretty much all my life. From the eighth grade I did community theater everywhere I went.” A 13-year hiatus from the stage ended in May 2021 when he performed in a Flagler Playhouse workshop production directed by Prece. Kirtley also performed in the playhouse production of “Rumors” in September.
Quintana, a Palm Coast resident who works as a quality control supervisor at World Class Distribution in Daytona Beach, has performed in local church productions but will be making his community theater debut in “Mass Appeal.”
“My character is very idealistic,” Quintana says. “He challenges a traditional viewpoint at every turn, intentionally and unintentionally. He’s a person who doesn’t have hair on his tongue and he doesn’t always think before speaking, and sometimes it helps or hurts him.”
Neither actor is Catholic, but Kirtley says Prece “has walked us through this so we understand the Catholicism behind the play.”
Both actors have discovered other challenges during rehearsals.
“One challenge is the dynamic between my character and Dick’s character,” Quintana says. “There’s such a fine line between the emotions that are flowing through every moment throughout this piece. You can go from a lighthearted moment to a serious moment to a tragic moment all in just a quick moment.”
Also, Quintana notes, “Working with two individuals who have so much experience under their belt is intimidating. But it’s also a blessing at the same time because they have been working with me so much and sharing a lot of their experience and helping me grow. So, major gratitude to them.”
Kirtley succinctly sums up the play’s challenge for him: “Brother, it’s 47 pages of dialogue! When you’ve got a 77-year-old mind like mine, you’re finding that its got leaks (laughs). So, it’s a challenge of 47 pages of dialogue and never leaving the stage and being challenged by a veritable youngster like Jonathan who is one step ahead of me all the time, not only onstage but in real life. And then of course Paul is a slave driver.
“It’s a challenge and I set out to do it and I’m going to do it. It’s the biggest challenge I’ve ever faced.”
–Rick de Yampert for FlaglerLive
“Mass Appeal” will be staged at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 13-15 and 20-22, and at 2 p.m. Jan. 16 and 23. Performances will be at the Flagler Playhouse, 301 E. Moody Blvd., Bunnell. Tickets are $20 adults, $15 students (ages 21 and younger with a student ID; proof of age and student ID must be presented at the box office upon entry). Tickets are available at flaglerplayhouse.com or by calling the box office at 386-586-0773.
Social distancing will not be in effect in the theater, but patrons are requested to wear masks. Masks will be provided for patrons, and hand sanitizer and disinfectant will be available throughout the venue.