Friday, July 25, 2008

John's Mass Appeal

Theatre professionals, family, friends, and fans gathered yesterday to honor John MacDonald with a funeral mass at the Church of St. Patrick in downtown DC.

I am the least religious person you ever met, but the ceremony was a moving celebration, and somehow, it helped.

I took the subway downtown, knowing that John would not want me to experience the hassle of parking in the area. He and Ann always took care of their actors. I departed the train at Metro Center, along with scores and scores of other passengers, as it was lunch hour on a weekday. While walking toward the exit gate, a well-dressed woman walking next to me suddenly turned and said, "Do you happen to know where St. Pat's is?"

I replied, "I'm on my way there. We can walk together." The coincidence of being approached, out of the blue, on a packed subway platform, by someone attending the same funeral as I, was pretty substantial, I thought. The woman introduced herself as "Catherine," and explained that she was meeting her husband and other friends at the church. They were clearly not theatre folk, and she revealed that they had all lived in the same apartment house with John and Ann, before the MacDonalds moved to their own home. I was not surprised to find that John was well remembered by non-theatrical "civilians," as well as his own tribe.

St. Patrick's is the oldest Catholic parish in the DC area, and was established in the late 1700s to minister to the Irish workers who were building the Capitol and White House. The parish, in fact, pre-dates DC as the nation's capital.

I'm sure the site was the only church considered for John's funeral. The Washington Stage Guild's first (and so far, only) permanent home was in Carroll Hall, adjacent to the sanctuary, and for a decade or so, Stage Guild shows were produced with the cheerful cooperation of their landlords, the archdiocese. The original members of WSG, most of whom are still members of the company, were clearly moved to find that John's funeral mass was being attended by Msgr. Farina, a retired cleric who was a staunch supporter of the Guild's early efforts.

I myself have never attended any kind of Catholic mass, though I can claim to have been blessed by the Pope. I was in the huge square of St. Peter's in Rome one Sunday morning in 1973 when Paul VI appeared on his balcony and did his thing. And I did attend an Eastern Orthodox wedding once. The event lasted forever, the priest droned on and on in Armenian, somebody spread smoking incense all over the place, and the groom fainted.

John's mass didn't have those kinds of histrionics, but was quietly meaningful to Catholics and heathens alike. I welcomed the structure of the service, which lent itself more to personal reflection than outbursts of raw emotion. Readings were given by WSG stalwarts Lynn Steinmetz, Vinny Clark, and Bill Largess, and the eulogy delivered by Bob Butler broke a bit with Catholic Protocol and invited chuckles from the congregation.

Speaking of the congregation, there was a large turnout, considering the mass took place in the middle of a work day. Of course, many many actors were present, as well as several artistic directors (Woolly Mammoth, Totem Pole Playhouse), and even a few theatre critics. John was clearly well-respected in his community.

The mass included a communion ceremony, and as the Catholic folk passed through the line to accept their wafer and wine, an oddity occurred. In the midst of the conservatively dressed attendees, a strapping fellow in shorts, work boots, and dirty bare legs, strode up to the alter. Even with all this solemnity, the guy was the source of only mild bemusement. There was none of the outraged shock which a more uptight crowd might have aroused. I chuckled to myself that this must be some construction worker in the area, on a break and eager to snag a bite of that tasty wafer symbolizing the body of Christ.

I later discovered that this gent had attended Catholic University with John, Ann, and the other Stage Guild founders, and had veered off into a career in plumbing. But he was determined not to miss the chance to honor John's life and career, and had, in his own words, "climbed out of a ditch" to get to the funeral.

John would have wholeheartedly approved.

As for me, I held it together pretty well, until the end. Msgr. Enzler, the very personable priest who officiated, gave the congregation permission to applaud, something which used to be verboten in churches of all faiths, but nowadays, is permitted in certain circumstances. Saying goodbye to such a fine director/actor/producer as John MacDonald absolutely required applause.

The scriptures which were read during the mass were beautiful to listen to, and were comforting in their way. But I am not spiritually moved by that kind of thing. Yet when the congregation's applause began, then swelled, filling that hall, bouncing off the high ceilings and curved walls, well, that was a sound I can relate to. I know what applause means, and its powerful effect overcame my well-learned poise.

I cried like a baby.

John would have wholeheartedly understood.

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