BWW Reviews: THE SAVANNAH DISPUTATION Offers Saucy and Serious Wit
Portland Stage closes its 2013-2014 season with a sharp production of Evan Smith's saucy, yet serious comedy, The Savannah Disputation, as play which examines the foibles of faith and the thorny issues of religious dogma.
Smith's 2009 play, set in his native Savannah, recounts the story of two aging sisters, Mary and Margaret, whose devout Catholicism is challenged by the visit of a fundamentalist missionary, Melissa. Engaged in a dialogue against their will, the sisters soon find themselves plunged into a full-fledged theological disputation, which prompts them to call for reinforcement from their parish priest. The ensuing heated and hilarious conversation tests the tenacity of each of the character's beliefs.
Smith's dialogue is searing, his wit acerbic, and his sense of pacing astute. "Starting with semi-logical premises and taking them step by semi-logical-step into the realm of nonsense" (Smith's own description), he builds a taut one hundred minutes of laughter often tinged with the bitter sweet. The quartet of characters is sharply drawn: the doctrinaire Mary, the sweet believer Margaret, the energetic, enthusiastic, slightly dim Melissa, and the intellectual apologist, Father Murphy.
Paul Mullins directs with a keen sense of timing, allowing each character his almost aria-like solos, while maintaining a sensitive ear for the ebb and flow of the "contest."
Maureen Butler brings a vulnerable presence to the spinster sister Margaret, who is bullied by Mary, terrified by her own mortality, and desperate for the confirming comfort of unquestioned beliefs. Christine McMurdo-Wallis is a sharp-tongued Mary, bristling with anger repressed behind a mask of righteousness. Given the most pointed lines, McMurdo-Wallis makes the most of the part without ever turning her into a shrew or losing audience sympathy, especially at the end. Courtney Moors is perfect as the bouncy, blond, young missionary, touchingly naïve in her inflexible proselytizing. Charlie Kevin portrays Father Murphy as a quiet man given to scholarly apologies, yet willing to acknowledge and accept his inability to penetrate the mysteries of life. The four play well off each other - the only criticism being that no attempt is made to deliver Smith's dialogue with the Southern cadences in which it is written.
Brittany Vasta's attractive unit set with its backdrop skrim of a lush, magnolia-lined suburban street and its characterful interior décor, creates the perfect forum for this disputation. Hugh Hanson's costumes underscore the personality differences among the characters, his Barbie doll outfits for Melissa especially amusing. Andrew Hungerford's lighting design bathes the stage in warm pastels, mauve and baby blue, all deceptive softness surrounding the discord within the house. As always Seth Asa Sengel contributes a crisp sound design, though the choice of interval music is curious.
With The Savannah Disputation, Portland Stage concludes a season of provocative plays. Never afraid to challenge its audience with ideas or to ask them to listen and think, as well as laugh and enjoy, this Maine company adds spice and substance to Portland's cultural scene.
The Savannah Disputation runs April 22-May 18, 2014 at Portland Stage, 25 Forest Avenue, Portland, ME. Call 207-774-0465 or visit www.portlandstage.org for tickets and information.
Photos courtesy Portland Stage, Aaron Flacke, photographer.