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The Savannah Disputation

Theatre Review by Howard Miller

Lucy McMichael, Katie Yamulla, Charlotte Hampden, and Michael Gnat
Photo by Lee Wexler

Too bad John Patrick Shanley already had laid claim to the title Doubt by the time Evan Smith got around to penning his own take on matters of faith in 2009. That would be an excellent name for the play that would become known as The Savannah Disputation, now being revived in a warmly satisfying and often quite funny production at The Cell.

Two sisters of a certain age, lifelong Roman Catholics —the crotchety Mary (Lucy McMichael) and the more genteel Margaret (Charlotte Hampden) —are in the family home they share when there comes a knock at the door. It is the cheery and chirpy Melissa (Katie Yamulla), an evangelical Christian and self-proclaimed missionary to Catholics who has come to "save" their souls by getting them to convert.

"Good morning, ma'am," says Melissa to Mary. "Are you saved?" Mary barks back, "Yes I am. Good-bye!" and she slams the door in Melissa's face. Gloating, Mary stomps off muttering, "I know Jesus loves me! It's you he hates."

But don't underestimate Melissa, especially when she is able to garner support from Margaret, who is beginning to have some doubts about the faith in which she grew up and which she always accepted without a second thought. Before you know it, Melissa is using that foot-in-the-door to keep chipping away at both sisters. Frustrated, Mary decides to up the ante by bringing in a ringer, her priest and good friend Father Murphy (Michael Gnat). She has Margaret invite Melissa to come during one of Father Murphy's regular weekly visits. Let the best debater win!

For a play with much to say about the contradictions and foibles of faith —quite interesting if you happen not to have much knowledge of the differences in the two sets of religious doctrines that are being discussed —The Savannah Disputation is never truly unkind to either side. The playwright handles things with a light touch (Melissa argues that Mary and Margaret would be required to believe God is a "purple bunny rabbit" if the Pope so decrees), and even when he sets up Father Murphy to be defender of the faith, the priest handles things calmly and gently, at least while Melissa is in the room.

More significantly, within the context of religious argumentation, we learn a great deal about each of the characters. We find out, for instance, that one of the sisters (we're never told which one) keeps getting phone messages from a doctor's office urgently asking her to call back for test results. This is what has made Margaret so vulnerable to Melissa's proselytizing; she fears that either she or Mary may be facing eternal damnation in the not-too-distant future. There also comes a point when a distraught Mary becomes exasperated with Father Murphy and demands to be excommunicated on the spot —and she pulls out a bell, a bible, and a candle to get the ball rolling.

It's these revelatory moments of detail that make The Savannah Disputation such an enjoyable experience. Under Katrin Hilbe's direction, the strong cast, Equity actors all, breathe life into Mary, Margaret, Melissa, and Father Murphy, and for all of their quirks, it's a pleasure to spend the time watching them trying to figure out where they belong in the grand and mysterious scheme of things.

The Savannah Disputation
Through December 20
Cell Theatre, 338 West 23rd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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