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A CurtainUp Review
The Savannah Disputation
By Elyse Sommer
Even though the debate implied in the title does tend to get too much of the upper hand, this 90-minute rumination on faith and the hereafter is remarkably entertaining. How could it not be with Ivey and Mary Louise Burke playing two plain as boiled potatoes Southern Catholic sisters, and Kellie Overbry doing a bang-up take on Melissa, an Evangelical member of a small fundamentalist Christian sect that sends its missionaries ringing doorbells to spread their gospel? As Ivey and Burke nail the curmudgeonly and bossy Mary and the simple minded Margaret, so Overbey convincingly shows that there's more substance to the blonde bombshell evangelical pamphleteer than meets the eye. Reed Birney, a versatile and always interesting actor, rounds out the cast's virtues as Father Murphy, the sisters' parish priest who needs to fortify himself with a few stiff drinks when he discovers that he's expected to pay for his dinner and banana pudding by giving the the evangelical intruder her comeuppance.
Like the Civilians in their latest musical docudrama, This Beautiful City (CU's review), Mr. Smith leaves the opinions to his characters but himself remains as neutral as his name. Father Murphy also tries to stay outside the disputation, but he is less successful than the author.
While Melissa's frequently ringing cell phone and outfit (bravo, costumer David C. Woolard) set the play in present day Savannah, the two style-blind elderly sisters who share a comfortably furnished, roomy house (another bravo for John Lee Beatty's finely detailed set) could be from another era. The rather skimpy plot begins with the pretty and persistent missionary working her way into this staunchly Catholic home. When Mary sees that her sister is taken in by the pert and pushy proselytizer she hatches a plan to have the erudite Father Murphy make short shrift of her talk about Catholics not being true Christians.
The sisters' response to the missionary's arrival on their front porch immediately establishes their personalities. Mary, slams the door in the bell ringer's face with a resounding bang and a warning to call the police if she shows up again. Margaret, though insisting "we're Catholics" is less firm. As she's easily manipulated by her sister, so it doesn't take long for Melissa to make a dent in her beliefs about the after life (Several answering machine messages about some medical test Margaret has had hint at a reason why she may be more than usually anxious and vulnerable). The initial Margaret/Melissa exchange has Melissa shocking Margaret by telling her that if she's "one of the elect" her body will be resurrected and perfect as when she was twenty, which prompts the astounded Margaret to comment "it wasn't perfect when I was twenty."
It's after Father Murphy gives up on his effort not to get involved in the debate that the crafty Mary springs on him (being the intellectual and atypical priest he's afraid he'll convert Melissa rather than have her convert Margaret), that the disputation aspect of the play gathers full steam. While Father Murphy explodes Melissa's fundamentalist arguments, he also confirms much of what she says, thereby causing the volatile Mary to become an instant drop out from the church, tossing the Catholic artifacts all around the living room into a box and demanding to be ex-communicated. In short a theological discussion turns this quiet home into an unruly verbal skirmish. It's all orchestrated at a brisk tempo by director Walter Bobbie.
As Smith takes no sides it's never too clear just what his intentions are, other than to see if he could write a quiet tragi-comedy that derives its action, poignancy and laughs from a parlor pow wow about issues of faith. It's a yes he can, and, given the variety of Smith's work overall, I look forward to what he comes up with next.
Other Evan Smith Plays reviewed at Curtainup
Uneasy Chair (Playwrights Horizon 1998)
Psych (Playwrights Horizon 2001)
Servicemen (The New Group 2001)