Plays about religion come along about as often as Amish taxi drivers, and they are usually about the historical conflicts of church leaders—Becket, A Man for All Seasons, Saint Joan and Luther. But Evan Smith’s thoughtful and richly detailed new play forsakes miters and chasubles for the casual housedresses, blouses and slacks of two middle-aged Catholic sisters and the eager fundamentalist who challenges them. The “disputation” in the sisters’ Savannah parlor (nicely designed by John Lee Beatty, with Kenneth Posner’s spotlights on religious objects in the décor) is about the nitty-gritty of Christianity: doctrine, faith, obedience, Biblical interpretation, and the afterlife. The last is symbolized by an ominous phone message (we never learn for which sister) that test results are ready. That message goes unanswered repeatedly, yet it serves as a deft metaphor—death and uncertainty, after all, hover over everyone.
Does all this sound heavy and depressing? It isn’t. Smith has invested it with plenty of comedy, and director Walter Bobbie has cast two supremely accomplished actresses to play the sisters. Dana Ivey is Mary, the stern—or, by her own admission, “mean”—one. Confident in her Catholic beliefs, she slams the door in the face of Kellie Overbey’s earnest young missionary, Melissa, without a qualm. To Melissa’s “God loves you!” she yells, “I know,” and adds, muttering, “It’s you he hates.”
As Margaret, the sister everyone likes, Marylouise Burke is a fine foil. Burke is a natural eccentric and a great clown—she can give comedic weight to a sigh—but her Margaret is more than that. When she invites Melissa in and listens to the pitch—Catholics are going to hell—Margaret is suddenly confused about doctrine and her own beliefs. Her dilemma provides the catalyst of the conflict.
When Mary learns that her sister has been listening to Melissa, she arranges for Melissa to return on a night that the women’s priest, Father Murphy (Reed Birney), is there for dinner. But the ambush of Melissa doesn’t turn out as expected.
The situation is rife with comedy and unexpectedly juicy, although it ranges over Aramaic vs. Greek translation, footnotes and Biblical scholarship. Character is exposed in the smallest details. Ivey’s glances at Father Murphy show that she’s one of those middle-aged single women who adores her priest. When Father Murphy hands Melissa and Margaret different Bibles to compare quotations and tells them to look up a passage in Timothy, he senses that Margaret needs an assist: “It’s in the back.” Birney’s Murphy knows his flock and their flaws, and he possesses the concern of a true shepherd.
The comic zingers gradually give way to something deeper, and the performers make you feel the stakes rise. In a late speech Mary reveals the pain underneath her prickliness and the causes for her resentment at the world. Under Ivey’s masterly delivery, Mary’s hurt is deeply moving.
It’s a measure of Smith’s skill at presenting the debate that even when Father Murphy cracks the whip over the two sisters and forces their adherence to doctrine, it seems absolutely understandable. The sisters have been practicing religion without thinking, as most people do. It’s not that they can’t think, but they have been lax about examining what they profess. Mary, for instance, views the church as a social club and Christians as the people who dress nicely. She gripes that a nun has brought smelly homeless people into the church and seated them behind her. When she tells Margaret that she was gently upbraided by the nun for failing to shake their hands during the passing of the peace, she says, “I just smiled and said the meanest thing I could think of—‘I forgive you.’ That shut her up.”
Ultimately, Smith comes down on the side of the sisters, laggard and unsure as they may be. The fundamentalists may be decent people, he suggests, and they have some sound talking points, but they make assertions that are too wild to countenance. Still, this isn’t a Catholic play. For Christians of any denomination, The Savannah Disputation serves as a smart parable about the necessity of examining one’s faith.