Theater Review - Witty Savannah disputes the value of your own personal Jesus

The Savannah Disputation finds humor in religious tension between Catholics and evangelicals

Theatre in the Square’s Southern comedy The Savannah Disputation bears little resemblance to the disturbing drama Doubt, but both rest on similar foundations. John Patrick Shanley’s hit play-turned-Oscar-nominated film used a 1960s church scandal to consider the dangers of blind faith and the virtues of doubt.

The Savannah Disputation tells a considerably lighter story, with bickering, mismatched characters and contrived confrontations suitable for a TV sitcom. Yet the comedic efficiency of Savannah-based playwright Evan Smith supports a deceptively thoughtful discussion of the complexities of religious belief. The opening play of Theatre in the Square’s 28th season, The Savannah Disputation supports the Marietta playhouse’s solid track record for pleasing audiences without pandering to them.

The play takes place at the home of two Catholic spinsters: divorced, crotchety Mary (Judy Leavell), and meek, never-married Margaret (Nita Hardy). Mary proves to be both a devout church-goer and a holy terror with a litany of complaints and putdowns for fellow parishioners and passers-by. In contrast, Margaret is well-meaning but wishy-washy and seems to have a mysterious health ailment (a point the play doesn’t overemphasize). Leavell’s hard-charging hostility finds a fitting foil in Hardy’s benign, ethereal approach.

Margaret’s uncertainty leaves her vulnerable to the attentions of Melissa (Mary Kathryn Kaye), a blond, beaming evangelical missionary who seeks “to convert Catholics to Christianity.” Melissa hands out pamphlets from sources such as the Evangelical Church of the Holy Spirit Alliance Church and undermines Margaret’s confidence in Catholicism. Mary finds herself unable to match Melissa’s anti-Catholic arguments, so she invites the younger woman over to dinner on the same night they’re feeding Father Murphy (Peter Thomasson), their local priest.

Where Doubt’s Father Flynn served as a suspect, Disputation’s Father Murphy turns out to be more of a referee. He prefers banana pudding to religious proselytizing and is aghast that Mary has dragooned him into a theological debate. The Savannah Disputation's dramatic conceit of pitting different Christian denominations against each other allows the playwright to critique the methods of overbearing evangelicals without attacking anyone’s actual belief system. (Last year, Horizon Theatre’s The Missionary Position walked a similar tightrope.)

Father Murphy and Melissa can each quote chapter and verse to support their respective churches. Disputation contains plenty of interesting tidbits of religious scholarship that cast doubt on the authority of the good book and the pope alike, not unlike to those interesting historical nuggets from The Da Vinci Code. The dogma underpins larger concerns about human worth and decency, and whether being a good Christian is truly the same as being a good person.

Kaye and Thomasson provide telling performances of people with similar levels of religious dedication yet entirely opposite methods. Kaye finds the humor in Melissa’s perky aggressiveness that refuses to take no for an answer and believes in saving others — whether they like it or not. During a rare moment of uncertainty she laments, “From now on, I’ll just keep my mouth shut and go back to the Lancome counter.” Thomasson shrewdly avoids Irish priest stereotypes to portray Father Murphy as scholarly, soft-spoken and wise in the gentlest possible way.

Director Jessica Phelps West comes up with enough funny stage business to keep the play from turning into a dry debate. Still, after about an hour, Disputation builds to one character’s explosive, applause-milking speech, and some of the steam escapes for the final third of the 90-minute show. Nevertheless, so many comedies about squabbling Southerners offer such simplistic conflicts and broad strokes that The Savannah Disputation’s bedrock of provocative ideas feels like a blessing.

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