at the Greenview Arts Center

I don’t know if Paul Mohrbacher is a practicing Catholic or not, but he sure knows the Roman church–especially its devious contemporary politics. He puts his knowledge to good use in The Chancellor’s Tale, an informative and credible study of conflict and compromise in the issue of homosexual ministry. But he knows far less about writing plays than he does about Catholicism–this is his first complete work for the stage–and that makes for a theatrical experience that’s strangely aloof and unconvincing, despite its intellectual sureness. Which is too bad, because this play tells an all-too-common story that needs to be heard.

As its Chaucerian title suggests, The Chancellor’s Tale aspires to relate a bittersweet, slightly bawdy anecdote about moral misdoings among the clergy. Frank Donnelly (Charles Lanny Lutz), a liberal priest whose Saint Ursula parish serves a diverse and disenfranchised inner-city population, gets in trouble for blessing the union of two lesbian parishioners. When a couple of conservative busybodies complain to the local archdiocese, the bishop hands the matter over to his second-in-command, chancellor Joe Miller (James Harbour). A martini-sipping pragmatist, Miller tries to negotiate an agreement under which Donnelly could continue his progay ministry with a lower profile and the archdiocese would look the other way.

But Miller’s longtime friend, theology teacher Peter Schirmers (Andrew Sutherland), uses the situation to push his ultraorthodox agenda–which includes hewing to the Vatican line that homosexual activity is “intrinsically disordered”–and in the process takes over Miller’s job. Complicating things (and ultimately provoking a backlash that works to Schirmers’s advantage) is feminist theologian Ellen Bolger (Molly Slagoski). Her agenda calls for gay rights, the ordination of women, and an end to priestly celibacy–beginning with herself and Frank Donnelly.

Restricting his cast to these four principal characters, Mohrbacher places Miller in the role of narrator–it is the chancellor’s tale, after all–and requires him not only to introduce scenes but also to act out conversations with imaginary characters, to describe offstage events (such as his own discussions with the never-seen bishop, whom he calls “a Peter Principle in the church of Peter”), and even to assume other minor roles, including a newsman and a waiter. Making Miller a sort of clerical counterpart to Our Town’s stage manager is a grave error, because The Chancellor’s Tale is really about Miller, not the people he’s talking about. The climax of the play–and the only moving scene in the show–has Miller taking a sudden stand against Schirmers’s repressive rigidity. But by the time this happens Miller is too fixed as a ribald raconteur who stands apart from the proceedings for his moral conversion to be convincing.

The play’s expository talkiness is exacerbated by its reliance on stereotypes and symbolic references (such as comparing Donnelly and Bolger to Abelard and Heloise). This gives the drama an ecclesiastical, almost ritual quality, which doesn’t jibe with the glib, sometimes bitchy dialogue; it’s as if Mohrbacher were trying to write Murder in the Cathedral with one hand and an archdiocesan All About Eve with the other. Jean Anouilh pulled this sort of thing off in Becket, but The Chancellor’s Tale lacks the fire of Anouilh’s play. Mohrbacher’s characters are too well mannered, too damn civil. The passions that should run through their strategic wranglings–ego and pride, submerged sexual desire, the religious faith that binds them together despite deep divisions about how that faith is best expressed in an imperfect world–are never felt.

The script’s flaws are compounded by the practiced, efficient, but stiff performances of the cast under Patricia Lin Ridge’s direction. SummerN.I.T.E., which is making its debut with this world premiere, is a semiprofessional company sponsored by Northern Illinois University, and this production feels like a college show–it’s too concerned with getting a good grade to generate any excitement. A more passionate script or a less stodgy production might generate the sparks the show now lacks.

Still, The Chancellor’s Tale has elements to recommend it. Its characters are accurate if simplistic reflections of certain kinds of career churchmen. The revelation that control freak Schirmers is a closet queen, for instance, is no surprise (though his confession here is too pat to be believable); Donnelly, the aging activist priest seeking a cause, also reflects a common type, though his credentials are unintentionally funny (Hanoi, Wounded Knee, anticontra demonstrations, and gay rights–the guy makes Alan Alda look like Pat Buchanan). And there are some nicely observed touches in Melanie Parks’s costumes, in Sahin Sahinoglu’s set (a dingy, down-at-the-heels Gothic church contrasting with the comfortable chancery office), and in David M. Johnson’s sound design (which provides folk-guitar accompaniment for Donnelly’s liberal mass, naturally).

Most significant, there’s the accuracy of the story itself. The Chancellor’s Tale is set in “a large midwestern city” in 1987, the year numerous chapters of the national gay Catholic group Dignity found themselves ousted from parish property because they refused to accept Vatican policy against committed homosexual relationships. In Chicago Dignity was ejected from Saint Sebastian’s, whose priest–like Saint Ursula’s Donnelly–had a long-established rapport with his gay parishioners until Rome and a few local shit-stirrers intruded. The Chancellor’s Tale ends with the archdiocese closing Saint Ursula down for financial reasons–just as Saint Sebastian was. This true-to-life twist simultaneously makes the play’s moral and political wrangling seem moot and exposes the broader issue of a Catholic church whose ministry seems increasingly elite and reactionary.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathleen T. McCoy.