The Savannah Disputation
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 1, 2009
The premise of Evan Smith's delightful, smart new play The Savannah Disputation sounds like the setup for a bad comedy sketch: A grumpy Southern Catholic lady (portrayed by the indomitable Dana Ivey) invites her priest to sabotage a door-to-door fundamentalist Christian proselytizer, and hilarity ensues. It does, but there is much more to The Savannah Disputation, which is why I'm prepared to call it one of the best new American plays of the season.
Mary and Margaret share a home in Savannah, Georgia. Mary (the sister played by Ivey) finds her curmudgeonliness to her liking; she knows she's "mean" when she argues with grocery store clerks who ring up items at the wrong price, but she doesn't care and has no intention of doing anything about it. Margaret (portrayed by Marylouise Burke) is dithery; dotty but sweet. We actually learn very little else about these two above-middle-aged women, except that they are devout Catholics—though that means different things to each: Mary goes to church every Sunday and enjoys complaining about the nuns, the congregants, the sermons, you name it; while Margaret seems to limit her religious activity to serving dinner to Father Murphy, a priest both sisters enjoy, every Thursday night.
So when Melissa, the young and pretty blonde missionary from the Church of the Apostolic Discipline, American Rite, makes her first appearance at the sisters' home, and Mary answers the door, she is sent away firmly and immediately. But when she comes back and Margaret answers the door, she is able to get into the house; Margaret knows better but she takes one of Melissa's pamphlets and agrees to let Melissa return on Sunday "to answer any questions." Melissa's earnest and apparently guileless desire to ensure that Margaret's soul is saved brings credence to Melissa's claim that her Church is the one true Church and that all Catholics are on their way to Hell. Suddenly Margaret has doubts. When Mary finds she cannot quell them on her own, she does indeed bring in the big gun—Father Murphy—to help her sister find her way back.
Now that last paragraph doesn't make The Savannah Disputation sound funny at all, which is highly misleading. Smith's script is, above all else, VERY funny; it's comedy rooted in situation and character in the best way, and as performed by pros Ivey, Burke, Reed Birney (as the priest), and Kellie Overbey (as Melissa), it's blissfully entertaining.
But at the same time, Smith never shies from the important subjects at the heart of his play. He obviously can't answer the Big Question that he implicitly raises—who on Earth can know which religion, if any, is the One True Path?—but he treats all the concomitant smaller questions with the seriousness that they merit. This is a play filled with heady and fascinating theological and philosophical debate. I'm not sure it will shake your particular faith, but it makes for a lively and rewarding exploration of how each of us arrives at the beliefs that shape, inform, and comfort us. The playwright's resolution feels particularly wise; Smith is doing the kind of thinking here that the world needs more of, to bring all of God's children together instead of pulling them apart.
And did I mention that the play is funny? Well, it's worth mentioning again. Ivey's performance borders on tour-de-force, which should not surprise her fans one bit. Burke actually anchors the piece, adding depth to her trademark ditz characterization; we really do understand that Margaret has been put in peril by Melissa's un-asked-for intrusion into her spiritual life. Birney is terrific as Father Murphy, in a very human and richly layered performance. Overbey more than holds her own as the troubled yet unwaveringly dogged Melissa.
Walter Bobbie is at the helm, and he's given his actors full reign to make the most of Smith's creations. Likewise, he's brought together a design team that delivers what feels like a near-perfect world for this play, from the cozy, well-lived-in set by John Lee Beatty to the naturalistic lighting and sound by Kenneth Posner and Tony Meola to the entirely appropriate (and character-revealing) wardrobe provided by costumer David C. Woolard. Playwrights Horizons is to be congratulated for giving its audience such a well-realized production of this enlightening, enlarging, and engaging new play.