Some of that old-time religion is dished out in a comedy that is as light and delectable as the banana pudding served by one of the gracious Southern matrons in the second half of Evan Smith’s The Savannah Disputation, an area premiere at Olney Theatre Center directed by John Going.
People have fought, bled and died over theological differences, but nothing so unseemly goes on in this genteel play. It is more like an episode of “Mama’s Family,” only with the Carol Burnett and Vicki Lawrence characters touched by hellfire.
A religious crusade plops smack-dab into the comfortable Savannah home of two older sisters, Mary (Brigid Cleary) and Margaret (Michele Tauber), who are of the Roman Catholic persuasion, after the kindly Mary opens her front door to a Pentecostal missionary named Melissa (Beth Hylton). Blonde, trendy Melissa resembles Bible Beltin’ Barbie as she perkily talks about eternal damnation and passes out colorful brochures about the benefits of being born again (the main perks are that you are not going to hell and you will be reunited with your earthly body—not the flabby, wrinkled flesh you may be carting around now, but an ideal body, kinda like Melissa’s).
Prickly, cranky Mary slams the door in Melissa’s face, but this brief encounter with the pep squad preacher is enough to raise fears in Margaret mind. Margaret invites her to discuss evangelical salvation over dinner—much to her sister’s disgust. Mary decides to take this opportunity to stage a showdown that involves the local priest Father Murphy (Jeff Allin), a somewhat melancholy and ruminating fellow who turns out to be an erudite biblical scholar.
Melissa drags out the big guns—that Catholics are idol-worshippers who built their church on a grammatical error and will therefore burn for all eternity—and Mr. Smith keeps the religious zealot zingers deftly flying during this living room religious debate.
However, what really gets Margaret in a tizzy is when she says that being nice does not necessarily get you a spot in heaven. Margaret is not just worried about herself, but about her sour sister. Luckily, Father Murphy is more than up to the task of dismantling Melissa’s Pentecostal propaganda and his reluctant warming up to the topic of biblical interpretation is one of the highlights of the production. He takes Melissa down, but Mr. Allin’s Father Murphy does so in a careful, almost tender way.
For all its scholarly discourse about religion, The Savannah Disputation is a slight play. The central situation is contrived and strained the longer it goes on and a subplot involving medical test results (you are not completely sure which sister is about to get troubling news) is a bald attempt to garner compassion for the older women.
The characters are a bit cartoonish, yet the actors add such dimension and heft to the roles that you marvel more at the level of performance than the play itself. Miss Cleary plays the frankly mean Mary with such unrestrained joy you cannot help but relish every barbed comment that flies out of her pursed mouth. When she lets her guard down in a monologue where she reveals the bitterness and disappointment behind the proud façade and her conviction that she is powerless to change, you are stung by the depth of her hurting.
Miss Tauber’s Margaret is a simpler soul, but by no means a cream puff. She embodies goodness with integrity and clarity, and what you love about her is her ability to be deeply embarrassed by other people’s behavior—namely, her sister’s. When Mary goes on the attack, Margaret scurries out the room as if a bomb has just gone off. Miss Hylton seems to get the essential absurdity of her character, but she also shows Melissa’s vulnerabilities—when all the chapter and verse is said and done, Melissa is really a lonely young woman in a strange town whose true mission is marriage and children.
This quartet of actors elevates the entertainment and emotional level of The Savannah Disputation from modest to something that seems almost heaven-sent.
The Savannah Disputation
by Evan Smith
directed by John Going
produced by Olney Theatre Center
reviewed by Jayne Blanchard
The Savannah Disputation runs thru Aug 22, 2010.
For details, directions and tickets, click here.
THE SAVANNAH DISPUTATION