“The Savannah Disputation”
When: Through Nov. 1. Showtimes, 7 p.m. Tue., Wed., Sun.; 8 p.m. Thurs.-Sat.; 2 p.m. Sat.-Sun.
Where: Old Globe Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park
Info: (619) 23-GLOBE
By Patricia Morris Buckley
However, if such an argument on the history and various belief systems of the church could be lively and interesting, it’s in Evan Smith’s thought-provoking and devilishly funny script. Smith made a couple of smart choices from the start.
First, the show is brisk a 90 minutes with no intermission. Any longer, and it would have dragged like an overly long sermon on a sweltering July Sunday morning. Second, Smith chooses strong, quirky characters to tell his story so it isn’t merely a dry theological petition. It’s a no-holds-barred disputation in the true meaning of the word.
The play begins with a knock on the door of two middle-aged sisters. Young, perky and full of the certainty only a young 20s woman can have, missionary Melissa has arrived to convert Margaret and Mary into Christians, telling them that Catholics aren’t really Christians. The cantankerous and downright nasty Mary runs the poor girl off, but Melissa comes back to speak to the meeker and dimmer Margaret, befuddling the old maid’s already over-taxed mind.
“I already believe in Jesus,” says Margaret. “But not in the right way. The way that gets you into Heaven,” the missionary replies.
So the sisters arrange for Melissa to return, only they’ll have another visitor — Father Murphy. So when Melissa gets going on the holy roll, Mary turns to the Father and says, “Let her have it! We want you to crush her!”
The real anchor of the show is Father Murphy and the extraordinary performance by James Sutorius. The Father handles each woman’s spirit with equal gentleness and firmness. Sutorius never goes for the over-the-top performance he could have, showing amazing control over the text and the subtext. It’s a masterful turn that is easily the most interesting element in the production.
Nancy Robinette is truly unlikable as Mary, who in the end needs the most mercy. As Margaret, Mikel Sarah Lambert is a last-minute replacement for San Diego favorite Robin Pearson Rose, but her performance is calming and sympathetic. A true balm in Gilead.
As a strident member of the small sect of the Evangelical Church of the Holy Spirit Alliance Church, Kimberly Parker Green is a true revelation. Green graduated from the Old Globe/USD MFA program last year and with her porcelain perfect looks, she at first appears to be lightweight and shallow, but looks are deceptive in her case. Green gives Melissa a steel frame as well as a vulnerable underbelly that is quite touching.
Kim Rubinstein’s direction is crisp, tightly paced and well versed on the religious material. The same praise can not be given to set designer Deb O, whose only eye-catcher is placing the stage on top of stacks of books. In the program notes, she talks about researching historic homes of Savannah, but her layout is rumpled, incomplete and lacks any sense of architecture.
Well-acted and directed, “The Savannah Disputation” is a lively discussion on religion, mortality and compassion. Yet it still is just that — a scripted discussion. For some theatergoers, there’s not enough lemon, sugar or cream to make it this cup of tea appealing.
Patricia Morris Buckley has been reviewing the arts in San Diego for 25 years.