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Watertown Little Theatre confident that ‘Mass Appeal” still has appeal 30 years later

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Thirty years after Danny Burgess won a state acting award for his role in the play “Mass Appeal,” his son will tackle the same role when Little Theatre of Watertown stages the comedy/drama beginning Thursday at the Black River Valley Club.

“It’s kind of humbling to take his place in this part,” Terry D. Burgess said before a recent rehearsal at the Black River Valley Club.

Little Theatre veteran Jane Bowman Jenkins, who directs “Mass Appeal,” said it was her decision to bring the comedy/drama back. After its run in Watertown in 1984, it also was presented that year at the 42nd annual Theatre Association of New York State Festival in Auburn. Danny Burgess won the best actor award for his portrayal of “Mass Appeal” character Father Tim Farley.

Danny Burgess, who was best known as WWNY-TV’s weatherman during a 40-year career on radio and television, died in 2005. That same year, Watertown Little Theatre established the Danny Burgess Memorial Scholarship given annually to a high school senior who has an interest in pursuing performing arts in college.

“I just thought it would be an excellent way to honor Danny,” Mrs. Jenkins said of the return of “Mass Appeal.” “And it’s an excellent play.”

The two-person play by Bill C. Davis explores the conflict between an established older priest and an impassioned young seminarian, Mark Dolson, played by Shane Coughlin, who challenges the validity of Father Farley’s regimen.

Mrs. Jenkins said some people may see Pope Francis as a modern-day metaphor for the arrival of the seminarian. The pontiff has been praised for promoting piety and reform in the Roman Catholic Church.

“You think of our new pope, who is a little bit more open-minded, I believe,” Mrs. Jenkins said. “It’s like ‘Who is man to judge?’ sort of thing.”

Some topics in the play include the lack of women priests in the Catholic church and the seminarian’s confession that he had led a life of bisexual promiscuity before entering seminary.

Mr. Burgess, middle school health teacher at South Jefferson Central School and a girls soccer coach, said he was 32 years old when he saw his father in “Mass Appeal.” A relative newcomer to Little Theatre of Watertown, Terry Burgess joined the the troupe in 2010.

“In four years, this will be the tenth (production) I’ve done,” Mr. Burgess said.

He said there’re a few elements of acting that keep him returning to the Little Theatre stage.

“I like being on the edge of failure,” he said. “I like the challenge of having to remember my lines; that if I found myself in trouble, can I save myself — gloss over my mistakes and no one knows I made a mistake other than myself ?”

Mr. Burgess said he’s had a few opportunities to do that successfully.

“Maybe I get this from my father,” he said. “I do learn my lines relatively quickly. When I first started four years ago, I didn’t.”

Mr. Burgess said that as the two-act “Mass Appeal” progresses, both characters are challenged.

“The two of them start working together with the goal of taking a little bit of edge off of the seminarian so he can become a priest, and for the priest, to maybe get a little bit more back toward Christ.”

Mr. Coughlin, an automotive technician at Davidson Auto Group, said he was looking for a more challenging role when he decided to audition for “Mass Appeal.” He has been in several other Little Theatre productions.

Being in a two-person show is especially challenging, he said.

“You are playing off each other,” he said. “Nobody is there to interact with. It allows you to focus more on your character and its relationship to one particular person more in depth.”

Mrs. Jenkins, who is assisted in her directing duties by Linda Hazelgrove, said there’s lots of dialogue in a two-person show, and it’s part of the director’s job not to make all that dialog boring.

“The expressions of anger can be loud or soft,” she said. “Everything is not in the same tone. And you have to move around and be careful they don’t use the same hand gestures all the time.”

the details
WHAT: Little Theatre of Watertown’s staging of “Mass Appeal” as dinner-theater and show-only presentations
WHERE: Black River Valley Club, 131 Washington St.
• Show-only, general admission productions: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and 1:30 p.m. March 2
Tickets are $15 at the door and $12 for Little Theatre members.
• Dinner-theater: 7 p.m. Friday and Feb. 22 1 p.m. Feb. 23 7 p.m. Feb. 27 and 28 1 p.m. March 1
Entrees are roast beef with smashed potatoes, chicken Parmesan with pasta and crab-stuffed haddock with smashed potatoes.
Dinner-theater tickets are $30. Reservations are required by calling Little Theatre at 263-1166.
OF NOTE: Because of limited seating, reservations also are required for general admission shows, even for complementary ticket holders, by calling Little Theatre at 262-1166. Tickets can still be purchased at the door after making reservations.
Opening night proceeds will benefit Watertown Mystery Players.
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