First produced in 2007, Evan Smith's The Savannah Disputation is a holy war in microcosm - an acerbic verbal brawl on a single suburban property, currently receiving an exceptional production from Zoetic Stage at the Arsht Center.
Barbara Bradshaw and Laura Turnbull play Mary and Margaret, Roman Catholic sisters cohabitating on a leafy street in Savannah, Georgia. It's obvious from the first moment who wears the pants in their arrangement; for the loud, obnoxious Mary, gossip is a second language, and she spares no insults for the filthy, rude, phony Catholics with whom she shares her pews. She bullies Margaret, whose docile demeanor and lack of religious rectitude makes her an ideal target for new neighbor Melissa (Lindsey Forgey), a peroxide blonde with a beaming smile, a peachy southern drawl, and a box of literature emblazoned with a "Jesus: Change We Can Believe In" sticker. Melissa worships at a small but extreme fundamentalist church that believes Catholics, with their worship of statues and popes (aka false idols) and misguided dogmas, are headed straight for eternal damnation - for only her sect is the one true faith.
Margaret's beliefs may be wavering, but Mary is no pushover, clandestinely coordinating a confrontation between Melissa, herself, and her local Catholic priest, Father Murphy (John Felix), whom she hopes will defend Catholicism against the claims of this rosy heretic. Thus begins a smart and witty theological conflict - a war of translations, omissions, recitations, and extrapolations that explores these warring Christian sub-sects in laudably minute detail.
The fact that The Savannah Disputation happens to be a rambunctious comedy helps its cerebral conclusions go down easier. Director Stuart Meltzer cast a complex and perfectly believable foursome; nobody's a rube, they're all admirable in one way or another, and they become harder to pigeonhole as the play progresses.
Bradshaw brings a righteous ferocity to her Mary, hilariously sneering at Melissa, trying to shut her up with the TV's remote control, and adopting the gutteral tones of a monster-truck broadcaster with every bilious retort. It's a domineering, scenery-chewing part, but I'd be happy to see Bradshaw digest an entire set.
Turnbull's monochrome Margaret is something else entirely, in a wholly different role than anything I've ever seen from her. She slavishly trudges through the house with the stooped posture of a battered wife, burying her emotions in a contained, sad performance of calibrated poise. It's difficult to remain compelling while invisibly bleeding into the background, but Turnbull accomplishes this in her heartbreaking words and movements.
But the fact is, this is Lindsey Forgey's moment. Stealing a show from Bradshaw and Turnbull is akin to stealing gold from Fort Knox, but Forgey, who raised eyebrows for her roles in Kutumba Theatre Project's Baby GirL and Slow Burn Theatre's Xanadu, pulls it off in a genuine star-making turn. She arguably has the play's biggest challenge, because she has to make charming an impudent door-to-door missionary, one of the most despised and mocked archetypes in the secular world. She does so in spades, with a magnetic stage presence and an authentic Georgia drawl: "Ya'll been saaaaved?" Smith's words never sound funnier than when Forgey is speaking them.
Meltzer, a gifted director of comedies, contributes some wry and funny choices to break up the inherent talkiness of Smith's intermission-free, somewhat static material. In one of the evening's biggest laughs, he has Bradshaw break up a long-winded rant by unselfconsciously fanning her nether regions with a handheld air conditioner; later on, the characters chase each other around the set while bickering, like transplants from a farce without the slamming doors.
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Every now and then, we'll hear a snippet of a phone message, or the entire thing, from Mary's doctor, insisting that she make an appointment to go over some recent test results. We're never given these results, and this lack of explanation has been one of the playwright's most divisive choices. It was a fine one by me. Just casting a pall of mortality over the proceedings, regardless of the tests' content and the possibility of treatments or cures, is enough to add a layer of urgency to the discussions about heaven, hell and rebirth - the sobering, unspoken flipside to the play's effective comic business.
It runs trough Through April 28 at Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. Tickets are $45. Call 305-949-6722 or visit zoeticstage.com.