It’s one of those situations we all have likely experienced: a fresh-faced young person unexpectedly knocks on your door and asks about your faith, challenging whatever concept of spirituality you may buy into. As two spinster sisters in proper Savannah Georgia examine their blue-blood Catholicism, the perky missionary is heaven-bent on saving souls and the audience squirm is palpable in “The Savannah Disputation.” Playwright Evan Smith’s playful clash on proper social graces and eternal salvation is nimbly handled at Little Theatre of Alexandria. What could go wrong?
From this simple chance encounter between strangers at a doorway, Smith crafts a complex character study that teases up familiar customs and age-old prejudices about what really being religious means. This Disputation (essentially a debate exercise where one’s position is challenged on its merits) is unusual in that the participants are totally unprepared for the event.
Meet Mary, the overbearing, opinionated sis who is the embodiment of Catholic caricature. She’s catty, chatty, and a little batty. Played with an outrageous energy by Mary Jo Morgan, she sets up the main event when her sister, gentle Margaret, (a painfully honest Patricia Spenser Smith) the gal that can’t say no, agrees to an initial chat with our earnest missionary Melissa (the chirpy Ashley Amidon).
Shy Margaret is a pushover for any stranger who is nice to her, and her eager-to-please and self-effacing mannerisms are endearing. We feel her pain at social conflict, and later the burden of being the “sweet sister.” Spencer-Smith was a fine study in minimalistic acting. Several answering machine messages about some medical test Margaret has had a hint at a reason why she may be more than usually anxious and vulnerable.
While Mary has no problem slamming the door in Melissa’s face, Margaret, though insisting that “we’re Catholics” is less firm. Easily manipulated by her sister, she sets up another meeting, and Mary brings her own back up—the parish priest, (a complex Michael J. Fisher) not in on the setup, here in civvy clothes for Thursday dinner.
Evan Smith’s playful clash on proper social graces and eternal salvation is nimbly handled at Little Theatre of Alexandria.
The initial Margaret/Melissa exchange has Melissa shocking Margaret by telling her that if she’s “one of the elect” her body will be resurrected and perfect as when she was twenty, which prompts the astounded Margaret to comment “it wasn’t perfect when I was twenty.” With Margaret and Mary lamenting what this fact means to burial and returning to their own house after death (stay with me) Father Murphy assures them that this is true and in the Catholic doctrine and asks them to reference the apostle’s creed. As they recite it and get to the resurrection of the dead, the sisters hilariously gasp in horror.
It is evident that the sisters know little about the foundation of their faith. Margaret asks “Why are y’all talking about copies of the bible? This and that copy–why don’t you just look at the original Bible?” It is telling that Jesus is brought up initially, but not a central theme.
The rest of the evening goes as a spiritual pinwheel, bouncing off subject and getting deeper into all the character’s insecurities. The reluctant priest, Fisher showed both poise and abject frustration while finally being tested and holding true to Catholic tenets. Evangelist Amidon shows her humanity and frustration in the soul-saving business, almost giving up at one point. And as vindictive sis Mary, Morgan shows that some families don’t hide crazy, they just let them keep talking. A memorable performance. Director Will Jarred’s pacing is upbeat, a challenge when balancing highbrow themes with personal issues.
Set Design by John Burgess is 1980s drab with comfy wood paneling adorning a could be anywhere little abode. It felt like we were in our aunt’s living room.
“The Savannah Disputation” is a fascinating and sometimes uproarious exercise in getting to the heart of what is important to you.
Running Time: 1 hour and 30 minutes with no intermission.
“The Savannah Disputation” is presented at the Little Theatre of Alexandria, 600 Wolfe St, Alexandria, VA from April 27 to May 18, 2019. For tickets to this or other performances in the 2019 season, call the Box Office at 703 683-04963 or online.