‘The Savannah Disputation” has a shorter history than is usually the case with Off-Broadstreet Theater’s choices. Written by Evan Smith, “The Savannah Disputation” had its premiere in 2007 in Glencoe, Illinois, and has since been seen at Playwrights Horizons in New York City and in San Diego, Boston, and Washington, DC. Following an Off-Broadstreet patron’s recommendation, Bob and Julie Thick went to see the play in New York and decided that it was indeed right for their theater. One of its pluses is the size of the cast: two unmarried sisters, who live together in Savannah; Father Murphy, the priest from their church who usually comes to supper on Thursday evenings; and Melissa, a young Pentacostal evangelist who is working the neighborhood trying to make converts. Another plus is the frequency with which serious topics are handled in an amusing way.
The sisters are old enough to have begun to find questions of the afterlife of considerable relevance. The fact that neither of them has responded to a telephone message containing the disturbing results of a serious lab test also provides a hint that the sisters’ mortality cannot be ignored. The older sister, Mary, doesn’t even bother to listen to evangelist Melissa’s arguments, but Margaret finds that much of what Melissa is saying resonates with her. The sisters invite Melissa to have supper on a Thursday night but have neglected to warn Father Murphy that they are looking to him to take care of Melissa. They assume that he will reject what Melissa has to say, but they are unprepared both for the way that much of the time he seems to pay no mind to what she is saying and then for the scholarly derring do with which he proceeds to demolish her arguments. The depth and extent of his knowledge of the history of religion and of the Catholic church were not something they were aware of.
The sisters, despite their common concern with their souls and the hereafter, are two quite different people. Mary is, to say the least, more self-assured and given to provocative and contrary behavior. She has clearly been the dominant one in the sisters’ relationship and seems to make a habit of trying to get even with those who disturb her. She even threatens to call the police to get them to place a restraining order on Melissa, though this threat does also reinforce what appears to be a tendency for her bark to be bigger than her bite. Margaret, on the other hand, is worried enough by what Melissa says to arrange a meeting with her and to consider converting for the sake of her soul and her life in the hereafter.
Puzzling to the audience is how to interpret where “The Savannah Disputation” fits. It’s clearly a comedy, but the author does not seem to be making fun of the theological arguments and issues being discussed or played out on stage. Even so, one has to wonder whether some seriously religious members of the audience might not take offense.
The play itself has some interesting contradictions. Melissa is making a career of being an evangelist, but her choice of clothing is more like that of a street walker. Who is she trying to impress with her short (and tight) skirts and her extraordinarily high heels? She clearly had an impact on some women in the audience — questions of the “How can she possibly walk in those?” type were overheard more than once.
The play takes place in Savannah, Georgia, in the living room and dining room of the sisters’ home. Aspects of this space may look familiar to the Off-Broadstreet regulars, but it remains attractive and serviceable. This is of course Bob Thick’s design, and he is, also of course, responsible for the direction of the show, which is, as Off-Broadstreet regulars know to expect, clear and unfussy. Costumes are again by Ann Raymond — the sisters, not surprisingly, are in rather dumpy dresses; Melissa, as mentioned, appears in surprisingly unrestrained garb.
The four members of the cast of “The Savannah Disputation” are all Off-Broadstreet veterans. Catherine Rowe, who plays Margaret, wins first prize for number of appearances in Hopewell: this is her 29th at Off-Broadstreet. Second prize goes to Tom Stevenson, who is Father Murphy: this is his 14th. Melissa is played by Katie Munley, a recent graduate of the College of New Jersey who appeared at Off-Broadstreet in “Nobody’s Perfect” in 2007 and “Leading Ladies” in 2008. Virginia Barrie, who was most recently seen in Hopewell as Aunt Alice in “In One Bed & Out the Other,” takes on the role of Mary. All four do a first-rate job presenting their characters and making what they have to say of interest to the audience. Although I am not a southerner, I have spent a few months living in Alabama, and I have to say that I found their accents consistent and credible.
Although the play is made up of several scenes — some toward the beginning are strikingly short — there is only one act and no intermission, and the play fun is over in a scant 90 minutes.
“The Savannah Disputation,” Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell. Through Saturday, March 12. Comedy. $27.50 to $29.50. 609-466-2766 or www.off-broadstreet.com.