On a (Catholic) mission

PSC's humorous take on piety
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  May 8, 2014

 theater_savannah_main

UP FOR DEBATE Margaret (Maureen Butler), Melissa (Courtney Moors) and Mary (Cristine McMurdo-Wallace)
in The Savannah Disputation by Evan Smith. Photo by Aaron Flacke.

Perky young Melissa (Courtney Moors) calls herself a “Catholic missionary.” That is to say, she considers herself meant to convert Catholics, specifically, to her own evangelical faith. But she’s got a hard sell knocking on the door of aging Catholic sisters Mary (Cristine McMurdo-Wallis) and Margaret (Maureen Butler). Melissa suggests brightly that the sisters “don’t believe in Jesus in quite the right way,” but avows that Jesus nevertheless loves them. “I don’t need you to tell me that,” Mary snaps back. “It’s you he hates.” When Mary later invites Melissa and her parish priest, Father Murphy (Charlie Kevin), for dinner, she sets them up for the theological throw-down that is Evan Smith’s comedy The Savannah Disputation, directed by Paul Mullins at Portland Stage Company.

A fertile window view of Georgian azaleas and Spanish moss dominates upstage, but the action takes place in Mary and Margaret’s homey, well-kept house. Here, mean sister Mary takes umbrage when nice sister Margaret first invites Melissa in, and she proceeds to viciously challenge the evangelical faith and defend her own from Melissa’s own less acid but just as convinced challenges to Catholicism’s “idolatry, polytheism, and magic.” Before long, though, the challenge for all three shifts inward.

The title’s “disputation” is a play on academic theological debates that used scriptural texts as evidence to challenge and prove religious hypotheses. The Savannah arguments are Disputation Lite, though the theology itself isn’t the point of Smith, who seems to poke at the paucity of informed intellectual debate in modern Christianity: Melissa knows only the verses that prove her own points; the sisters have all their lives been oblivious to a point of faith they’ve recited every Sunday. Their barbed back-and-forth proceeds with a sit-comical feel that lightens our sense of the debate’s stakes — Melissa’s Mission Impossible ring-tone mystifies everyone for a long, tongue-in-cheek moment; characters are chased around the room; and a running audio gag blasts the Doobie Brothers’ “Jesus is Just Alright” between scenes (just a hit or two of that would suffice).

The characters, while rather broadly acted in keeping with the script’s rather broad comedy, are well matched in casting and drawn with sympathy and animation. McMurdo-Wallis’s severe Mary, with her low, coarse voice and blunt stride and gestures, contrasts nicely with Butler’s wispy hair, apologetic bearing, and softer voice that often ends in an upturn. Moor’s creamily blonde Melissa enters their world like a pink thunderbolt with her tight sparkly sweater and lipsticked smile, but she resists dumb-blonde tropes; she has a grounding self-awareness, and her mellifluous missionary manner nicely balances kindness, condescension, and need. As their reluctant mediator, Kevin has a wryness and restraint that bespeak much time spent with the less rational or theologically informed.

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