Saving Souls In The Name Of God
By R. J. Donovan
The unwritten rule is this: If your goal is to engage in polite conversation, there are three topics to avoid -- politics, religion and other people's children.
SpeakEasy Stage Company is getting its fall season off to a stimulating start by attacking the middle one with fervor via a sharp production of Evan Smith's comedy, "The Savannah Disputation."
We're in the modest Savannah, Georgia, home of staunch Catholic sisters Mary and Margaret (Nancy E.Carroll and Paula Plum, at left). The doorbell signals the arrival of missionary-in-training Melissa, a perky blonde who's first line is the disquieting, "Do you want to be saved?"
Anyone who's ever encountered a strolling evangelist knows its best not to engage them. And when Melissa is met by at the door by the feisty Mary, the answer to her question is a resounding "NO!," followed by an emphatic door slam.
It should be noted here that Mary is so devoted to her faith that she practically has the phone numbers for her parish priest and local bishop on speed dial. Her later response to Melissa's religious literature is the mater-of-fact statement, "Jesus loves me. He hates YOU!"
Undaunted, Melissa returns, this time to be greeted by the more timid Margaret. And unlike her initial visit, she gets her foot in the door because Mary's not home. Which sets off a chain reaction of arguments and confrontations that range from hysterical to horrifying.
The meek and mild Margaret is unable to stand up to anyone (almost). In fact, when she opens the door, she shrinks back as far as possible, practically ushering in the mayhem which ensues. (Anybody knows that missionaries, like vampires, must be invited to enter before they are able to cross a threshold.)
When Mary subsequently finds out that Melissa has been in the house, yet again, she raises hell that someone has dared come into her own devout dwelling to challenge her faith. And when she sees that Melissa has actually caused the submissive Margaret to have self-doubt, she's livid. All of which is made worse when she finds that she alone cannot calm her sister's newly seeded fears.
Rather than just ignoring this pamphlet-waving nuisance who believes the entire Catholic religion was founded on a grammatical error, Mary sees a chance to slap down the offending visitor in a divine deathmatch of fact vs. fiction. Her secret weapon will be her parish priest -- disguised at dinner in his street clothes. She wants him to crush the outsider. Victory will be hers. Or so she plans.
The plot unfolds like a fencing match with the competitors advancing and retreating as they wage their battle. Smith's script is sharp and biting as he manipulates the audience into siding first with one contender, only to shift gears and cast doubt where there was previously firm belief. The zingers are doubly potent when delivered in that icy-smiled Southern drawl.
"Savannah Disputation" is easily one of the most engaging plays I've seen in a long time. The characters could easily submerge into sitcom swill, but Evans keeps it smart and funny and very persuasive as the theological exercise expands. Although he skewers every religion to some extent, he avoids going so far as to seriously alienate anyone. And really, you know you're in for a good time at the very top of the show when you hear the ridiculous phone message the sisters have on their answering machine.
The actors have a field day with their roles. And if you didn't know better, you might think the show was written for the talents of Nancy E. Carroll as Mary. She's crusty and mean and intolerant, all the while hitting laugh after laugh with razor-sharp precision. She's unwavering in her beliefs, but wants nothing to do with anyone who's equally enthusiastic about a conflicting view. In other words, only she can be right.
She fights with supermarket cashiers, sneers at haughty nuns and is floored when she learns that some of what Melissa is blathering about is actually part of her own religion's foundations.
One minute she's spitting with disgust over the smelly homeless men who've been sitting behind her at Sunday Mass and the next she's outraged at the pomposity of the Evangelical Church of the Holy Spirit Alliance Church for having the word "church" in their name twice.
In demeanor, imagine Bette Davis in "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane." When Margaret begins to doubt her own church, you can almost hear Mary screaming, "But 'cha ARE Catholic, Blanche. Ya ARE!"
Bottom line, Carroll gives another wonderful performance, layering strength with weakness, ultimately revealing Mary as someone living in a lot of pain. (Plus, she sits like a woman who just doesn't give a damn.)
Paula Plum has the meeker role. And while she initially seems to melt into the helplessness of a dithered Margaret, she eventually shows there's more going on behind the puddling eyes than is evident on the weepy surface.
In a very funny scene, Mary is pushed to decide she will no longer be Catholic at all and races around with a basket, removing all religious artifacts and symbols from the room. Terrified, Margaret rushes behind her, putting everything right back where it was lest Mary wind up burning in hell for all eternity.
Longtime Trinity Rep company member Timothy Crowe (at left with Carolyn Charpie) is Father Murphy, blind-sided by his forced participation in the battle for souls and initially unwilling to engage the missionary in his midst. His interest is eventually piqued enough (and aided by a couple of stiff drinks) to slide a few embarrassing facts into the mix -- after which, he's in whole hog.
When it's suggested to Father Murphy that we all need to go back to the original Bible for answers, he lays it right on the line that there IS no original Bible. It's long gone and all we have now are copies of copies of copies. He questions the common sense of the others by asking if they actually expect there to be something somewhere written in Moses' own hand "along with a souvenir program signed by Jesus, Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb."
And finally, Carolyn Charpie is Melissa, a Britney Spears Barbie Doll Steamroller whose convictions ebb and flow depending on the effect she's having on her prey at any given moment. To her, yoga is Satanic, Jesus spoke Greek, and in the afterlife, we'll all come back to live in our own homes. (Margaret hoped it would be nicer than that.)
Paul Daigneault directs with a tight hand, keeping the pace bright. Gail Astrid Buckley's costumes are small town bland, and totally correct for the characters. And Eric Levenson has fashioned a lived-in looking set that's not only deep but looks mighty impressive in the confines of the Calderwood's Roberts Studio.
In the end, not much is answered, except that whatever our religion, we're all fumbling along, firmly believing what we believe, but still hoping for reinforcements that we're correct.
"The Savannah Disputation" from SpeakEasy Stage, is at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center For The Arts, 527 Tremont Street, through October 17. For information, call 617-933-8600.
-- Production Photo: Mark L. Saperstein
-- OnStage Boston
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