The Savannah Disputation
Also see Susan's review of Serenading Louie
Evan Smith's play The Savannah Disputation may pretend to consider questions of the deepest spiritual importance, but it's ultimately a bit of lightweight entertainment, at least in the production now at the Olney Theatre Center in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., with fluid direction by John Going.
The play sets up a conflict between two types of religious true believers: prickly Mary (Brigid Cleary) and kind Margaret (Michele Tauber), sisters and lifelong Catholics, and Melissa (Beth Hylton), a spunky young missionary from an evangelical Christian sect. While both sides score some points, the playwright doesn't allow either side to achieve total victory.
Early in the play, which runs 95 minutes without intermission, Melissa tries to explain that if Margaret doesn't give up the supposed idolatry, belief in magic, and cannibalism embodied by the Catholic Church, she will go straight to hell. (Of course, Melissa admits, Catholics do love Jesus, but that isn't enough to ensure their admission to heaven.) Mary, enraged and unyielding in her own religious beliefs, prevails on Margaret to invite Melissa back on the night that Father Murphy (Jeff Allin) comes to dinner. He is a published author on theological and historical topics, so Mary expects he can teach the young heathen the real truth about God, or at least get her to shut up.
The subsequent action allows characters to address contradictory quotes and translation errors in different versions of the Bible, questions of doctrine (specifically, the exact meaning of "the resurrection of the body"), and the question of whether salvation depends on faith alone and if good works make any difference. The playwright also tosses in a few red herrings, from Mary's impatience with church officials to a health scare involving one of the sisters.
Mary is the best-written and juiciest of the four roles, and Cleary makes the most of each acerbic line, moment of righteous anger, and the ultimate release of her bitterness. Tauber is warm and caring in a more amorphous characterization, Hylton conveys the utter certainty of a very young woman who has never faced a challenge to her beliefs, and Allin is appropriately world weary.
Olney Theatre Center