“The Savannah Disputation,” Evan Smith’s audience-friendly play about two Southern sisters whose Catholic faith is shaken when they allow a perky Pentecostal Bible-thumper into the house, feels like a young relative’s valentine to beloved elderly aunts. But the scribe underestimates the intelligence of the old girls, winningly played by Dana Ivey and Marylouise Burke in Walter Bobbie’s sleek production for Playwrights Horizons. While Smith doesn’t shy away from touchy religious topics, he cuts off the soul-searching just when it begins to get challenging, delivering believe-it-or-else marching orders and covering up his retreat with vapid character backstories.
Despite its imperfections, the play could easily be shipped off to any regional theater with a graying subscriber base capable of laughing and thinking at the same time. It would be nice if pros Ivey and Burke could come along for the ride, so funny and touching are they as sisters Mary and Margaret, respectively — devotional Catholics forced to examine the tenets of their faith for maybe the first time in their lives.
Margaret, the ditzy one, gets the sisters into this scary situation by being polite to Melissa (Kellie Overbey), the gung-ho missionary-in-training who shows up on the doorstep of their Savannah, Ga., home waving religious pamphlets. With her too-bright hair and too-tight outfits (cut with tongue in cheek by costumer David C. Woolard), Melissa is a hot pot of physical vitality and evangelical fervor.
While not denying the character her comically infuriating qualities, Overbey turns in a big-hearted perf that respects Melissa’s religious convictions, even as she acknowledges the personal insecurities fueling her militant practice of them.
Most people, especially poisonously polite Southerners, would know how to extract themselves from the clutches of a pest like Melissa. But shy Margaret (the overworked Martha in this household, to give her a biblical reading) is a pushover for any stranger who’s nice to her. The effortlessly endearing Burke is perfectly typecast as this embraceable character, with her eager-to-please smiles and self-effacing mannerisms. But the savvy thesp also conveys the loneliness of the “sweet sister,” the one who’s never noticed because she never complains.
Mary is the complainer, and in Ivey’s wonderful reading of that prickly character, you can hear her all the way down the block. Sharply opinionated, she’s never at a loss for words: In her initial exchange with Melissa — “I know Jesus loves me. It’s you he hates” — Mary wins in a walk.
But while Ivey plays this bully with great bluster, she also plays her bluff. Proclaiming your own faults before someone else can point them out is an old trick of difficult people who secretly want to be loved despite their flaws. Ivey gets that double nuance. “I don’t have any friends,” she says frequently, chin thrust forward with defiant pride. Ivey gives Mary her pride, even as she lets us in on her secret.
Smith plays to the grandstand when he lets Mary and Melissa duke it out over relatively innocuous issues like the miraculous properties of holy water (“You are mistaking holy water for Lourdes water”) and the literal interpretation of biblical texts (“Your whole church is founded upon a grammatical error”). The give-and-take is good and snappy and delivered with split-second comic timing under Bobbie’s helming.
But Mary being Mary — unhappy unless she lands the knockout blow in a brawl — she’s not content just to show Melissa the door. She wants to smack her down by setting up a confrontation with Father Murphy (Reed Birney), the parish priest who is her best, and possibly only, friend left at Blessed Sacrament Church. “We want you to crush her,” Mary says, speaking for herself. “We want you to demolish her.”
Father Murphy is properly aghast. Although a true friend of the sisters (only a true friend feels free to criticize a home-cooked meal), the mild-mannered, gormless-looking cleric seems ill equipped to take on Melissa. But in his rich characterization, Birney has already dropped a few hints that the amiable priest has intellectual resources he keeps well hidden for reasons of his own.
That’s why it’s such a disappointment to Mary and Margaret (not to mention the audience) when Father Murphy essentially cops out of the “disputation” that has shaken the sisters’ faith. It’s not as serious a disappointment, however, as Smith’s shaky fall-back on extraneous character issues like the sisters’ spinsterhood, the priest’s celibacy and Melissa’s unhappy affair with her pastor.
So far as it goes, “The Savannah Disputation” has genuine appeal. But it wouldn’t hurt to call in the Jesuits for the rewrite.