Living in liberal, heathen South Florida, I've encountered religious missionaries only in movies and on television. They're usually overdressed, pasty-white Mormons burning under a blazing afternoon sun as they rap on doors that are promptly slammed in their faces. But what if they were allowed into one of these hostile homes, more than once, for hours' worth of conversation?
This is the idea behind Evan Smith's exhaustively researched The Savannah Disputation. Smith was raised in Georgia, where, presumably, the friendly knocks from scrappy zealots are more of an actionable reality than a Trey Parker story device, and Smith uses the appearance of one of these zealots to comment on religious strife. First produced in 2007, The Savannah Disputation is a holy war in microcosm — an acerbic verbal brawl on a single suburban property, currently receiving an exceptional production by 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; she spares no insults for the filthy, rude, phony Catholics with whom she shares pews. She bullies Margaret, whose docile demeanor and lack of religious rectitude make 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 dogma, are headed for eternal damnation.
The Savannah Disputation"
The Savannah Disputation: Through April 28 at the Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-949-6722; zoeticstage.com. Tickets cost $45.
Margaret's beliefs may be wavering, but Mary is no pushover. She clandestinely coordinates a confrontation among 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 witty theological conflict — a war of translations, omissions, recitations, and extrapolations that explores battling Christian subsects in laudable detail. The result is a clever inquiry into the contradictions and fallibility of religious doctrine. When the holy books are subject to conflicting interpretation, who's to define right and wrong?
The fact that The Savannah Disputation happens to be a rambunctious comedy helps its cerebral conclusions go down easier. The New York Times' Charles Isherwood a bit derisively said the play's New York production "sometimes feels like a Very Special Theological Episode of The Golden Girls." But Zoetic's production skirts the script's easy, sitcom-like temptations. Director Stuart Meltzer cast a complex and perfectly believable foursome — nobody is 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 ferociaty to Mary, hilariously sneering at Melissa, trying to shut her up with the TV's remote control, and adopting the guttural 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 monochromic Margaret is something else entirely. And it's 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 that in her heartbreaking words and movements.
But 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: "Y'all been saaaaved?" Smith's words never sound funnier than when Forgey is speaking them.
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Meltzer, a gifted director of comedies, contributes some wry and funny choices to break up the 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 region with a handheld air conditioner; later, the characters chase each other around the set while bickering, like transplants from a farce without the slamming doors.
The set, by the way, comes courtesy of the Alliance Theatre Lab's Jodi Dellaventura. It's a nicely appointed living-room interior with old-person wallpaper, old-person furniture, and scattered religious iconography, framed on either side by beautiful, healthy trees. The house is presented in a skeletal, supportless form, with the roof and windows dangling from strings. The lack of walls provides the audience ample view of the outside. It's quite literally an open house, inviting the opposing viewpoint that Mary wants to keep out.
Every now and then, we 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 fine 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 flip side to the play's effective comic business.