The Savannah Disputation
Writers' Theatre (see Resident companies). By Evan Smith. Dir. Michael Halberstam. With Marilyn Bogetich, Linda Kimbrough, Suzanne Lang, Robert Scogin.
If the problem with new plays (’cause there’s only one, right?) is their resemblance to television, then maybe the best way to smuggle a legitimately thoughtful new work onto the scene is to disguise it as a sitcom. The Savannah Disputation, which gets its world premiere at Writers’ Theatre, is a bit of theatrical espionage, a sneak-attack religious interrogation disguised as an episode of The Golden Girls. You can almost envision playwright Evan Smith crouched in a foxhole with the template of something proper and didactic, saying, “No, that’s just what they’ll be expecting us to do.”
Mary and Margaret are elderly sisters who share a house in Savannah, Georgia, where they indulge in elderly sister activity like watching BBC sitcoms and cooking dinner for their priest. (They’re the stripe of Catholics who refer to a priest in the first-person possessive.) When simple-minded Margaret (Kimbrough) answers the doorbell to find a perky fundamentalist Christian missionary on her porch, she invites the sunny proselytizer inside, gets schooled on how Catholicism equals heresy and finds her entire belief system thrown into question.
As soon as levelheaded Mary (Bogetich) comes home to find her sister panicked by possibilities of evolution and the afterlife (and is the Pope really the anti-Christ?), she blows a gasket. Her solution—inviting Father Murphy over to straighten things out—sends the four resolute believers cascading into a theological brawl that tests the faith of each.
What comic-book characters are to pop theater of late, Jesus of Nazareth seems to be to proper-minded dramatists: easily identifiable, spiritual iconography to be used as a playwriting piñata. Yet whereas many writers swing at it blindfolded, unwieldy bat in hand, Smith is unmasked and wide-eyed, and he goes at it from every direction.
But unlike Doubt, in which crises of faith are set in motion by accusations of offstage crimes, or The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, in which characters from the gospels are portrayed as slacker contemporaries in a mock court setting, Savannah takes a route that is surely theatrical certain death: four people in a room talking.
But the playwright, along with canny director Halberstam, knows what we’re anticipating, and defies it at nearly every turn, squaring off devotees of opposing ideals with sly exactitude. It’s never clear what Smith the writer believes about the universe, but with the credence he gives his characters—even the girl whose fundamentalism makes Catholicism seem like Scientology—it appears that Smith has spent enough time around men and women of faith not to blow them off. It would be an uncommonly mature perspective for a tragedy; in a soufflé comedy, it’s almost unheard of.
As Melissa, the pamphleteer who arrives looking like the Avon lady but turns out to have a carefully rationalized worldview beneath the bangs and the twang, Lang gives an utterly blithe performance. (And again, we fall for the sitcom bait-and-switch, as we’re expecting a born-again Suzanne Somers.) And Scogin’s priest, a learned, quiet drunkard whose carefully maintained silence seems to mask his own secret skepticism about a life in the cloth, is as accurate a fictional clergyman.
But Bogetich—as an angry, blowzy malcontent who suddenly decides her own Catholicism is a fraud—is the anchor. As she slumps about demanding an instantaneous excommunication, we’re reminded of a crabby diner customer loudly sending her meal back to the kitchen; she’s only truly happy in her unhappiness when everyone knows about it. (Comic ace Kimbrough is sturdy, but because her character’s naïveté keeps her in the margins of the high-minded dialogue, she sometimes falls back on shtick.)
Smith understands that the strange boundaries separating Christianity and Catholicism may be innocuous to the casual observer, but to those in either camp, they’re as distinctive and divisive as race or ethnicity. When Melissa accidentally refers to Scogin’s character as Father MacKenzie, he’s temporarily stone-faced before he can spit out, “I’m Father Murphy. Father MacKenzie was in ‘Eleanor Rigby.’ Darning socks.”
Which brings us back to Smith’s gifts as a writer of situation comedy. His Victorian marriage satire The Uneasy Chair was a hit at Writers’ a few years ago with its highbrow language and throwback comedy of manners. But we prefer him here, where he pretends to resort to tactics suited to prime time, but turn out to be passionately, even religiously, theatrical.—Christopher Piatt