Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Diego

The Savannah Disputation

Also see Bill's review of Sammy

Nancy Robinette
The Savannah Disputation, Evan Smith's comedy which had its debut at Chicago's Writers' Theatre in 2007, is a very funny play about religion.  Usually, religion is not a particularly funny topic, unless it is being mocked, but Smith neatly manages to uncork a good many jokes about religious debates while still respecting each side's viewpoint.  And the Old Globe is giving Mr. Smith's play a sparkling West Coast premiere production featuring one superior performance as well as three excellent ones.

The action takes place in the Savannah, Georgia, home of Mary and Margaret, two sisters who consider themselves to be devout Catholics.  Mary is a fixture at mass, but she sits by herself, openly resenting those who sit around her, and then claims that the only friend she has in the parish is Father Murphy, one of the priests.  Margaret is meeker and easily taken in, but she seems not to attend mass quite so often, perhaps not at all.  Their house is filled with religious statuary and icons (and lots of other things—the sisters seem to be incapable of throwing anything away), and Father Murphy is in the habit of having dinner with them each Thursday evening.

Into the sisters' lives comes Melissa, an attractive young woman offering religious tracts.  Taking her for a member of the Jehovah's Witnesses, Mary shoos her away.  But, Melissa returns when only Margaret is at home, and Margaret lets her in.  Melissa and Margaret talk about Catholic faith and dogma, and Margaret becomes confused about her faith as a result of Melissa's claims.  It seems that Melissa is not a Jehovah's Witness after all but rather a member of an evangelical church that believes that Catholics are not Christian and need to be converted.

Mary is infuriated that Margaret has allowed herself to be led into doubt, but she is unable to convince Margaret to ignore Melissa's claims.  So, Mary plots to have Melissa visit next on the same day that Father Murphy is coming to dinner.  When Melissa arrives only to find that she has both Mary and Father Murphy to contend with, both she and Father Murphy are unhappy about having been led into a confrontation that neither had sought.

Eventually, however, Mr. Smith gives both sides a chance to explain their claims, to verify which are correct and which are in dispute, and to consider for themselves the implications of the religious teachings to which each side is attached.  Out of this process comes some surprisingly honest revelations.

Mr. Smith's play isn't perfect by any means.  In particular, it has a tendency to introduce plot points and then leave them hanging or unresolved.  But the play's characters are refreshingly real and not mere representations of their points of view.  The psychological basis of their revelations to each other seems exceptionally secure.

Did I mention that the play is very funny without disrespecting either side's religious beliefs?

Director Kim Rubinstein's production captures both the humor and the humanity of the text.  Deb O's scenic design shows the clutter of the sisters' home (and lives) without impeding sightlines in the Old Globe's temporary arena space.  Judith Dolan's costumes are character studies in themselves.  Alan Burrett provides a subtly effective lighting design, and Paul Peterson's sound design ranges from hit-you-over-the-head music to doorbells and answering machine messages that sound just right.

The role of Mary is the lynchpin in the cast, and though the part was not written for Nancy Robinette, it seems as though it had been in her hands.  Though little known to San Diego audiences, Ms. Robinette is a stalwart of the Washington, DC, theatre scene.  She's in her element here, and her textual acuity and comic timing are masterful.  She gives, in short, a perfectly realized performance.

Mikel Sarah Lambert stepped in during rehearsals to replace the indisposed Robin Pearson Rose.  On opening night she seemed a bit tentative at the beginning of the show, and Ms. Robinette appeared to be pulling her on.  But Ms. Lambert's character gained confidence and depth as the play progressed and her portrayal was strong when strength was most needed.

As Melissa, Kimberly Parker Green effectively portrays the fervor and commitment of her character while side-stepping the stereotype of the smiling but essentially insincere evangelical that is so often presented.  Ms. Green's character spends a good deal of the play listening to others, but her listening is often eloquent.

James Sutorius has to navigate Father Murphy's conflicted feelings of anger for being dragged into this debate, his concern for the beliefs (or lack of same) of his parishioners, and his own doubts about Catholic dogma.  Mr. Sutorius' performance seems too detached when these conflicts first began to present themselves, but connects once the characters' revelations began to emerge.

The Old Globe's production of The Savannah Disputation is one that will be enjoyed by religious and non-religious alike and is likely give those who are exposed to religious debates plenty to think about as they consider their own spiritual condition.

The Savannah Disputation, September 26 —November 1 at the Old Globe Arena Stage at the James S. Copley Auditorium, San Diego Museum of Art (in Balboa Park, adjacent to the Old Globe campus).  Tickets ($29-$62) are available by calling (619) 23-GLOBE, or online at The Old Globe's website.

The Old Globe presents The Savannah Disputation by Evan Smith.  Directed by Kim Rubinstein with scenic design by Deb O, costume design by Judith Dolan, lighting design by Alan Burrett, and sound design by Paul Peterson.  Anjee Nero is the stage manager.  With Nancy Robinette, Mike Sarah Lambert, James Sutorius, and Kimberly Parker Green.

Photo: Craig Schwartz  

See the current season schedule for the San Diego area.

- Bill Eadie

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