Two elderly, eccentric Roman Catholic sisters square off against a door-to-door Christian evangelist (they call in their priest for backup when they fall a little short on doctrinal knowledge) in playwright Evan Smith’s 2009 comedy The Savannah Disputation at Theatrical Outfit through September 7.
Alex Bond and Shannon Eubanks make a delightfully comic odd couple of sisters. Bond’s Mary is resolutely and often coldly closed off to new ways of thinking, while Eubanks’ Margaret is naively, often dangerously, open to them.
Mark Kincaid likewise creates a strong character in Father Murphy, a religious man who understands all too well the cost of the life he’s chosen. He’s an intellectual who loves the majesty and mystery of the Catholic Church, but is also somewhat exhausted with being its apologist and explicator. Lane Carlock makes a perky, somewhat clueless but ultimately sympathetic evangelical visitor.
It’s a great group of characters, but Smith never really unleashes the wicked sense of humor that’s required to skewer two competing systems of belief: his approach is gentle, so we end up more interested in the sisters as people than in what they believe or don’t believe.
The sisters are a little old-fashioned (they’re supposed to be), but there’s something old-fashioned about the play itself, too, in the way it plays up affability. Still, the show remains resolutely a comedy about belief throughout. The beliefs are shown to be, by turns, faulty, incompatible, unshakeable, vulnerable and at times silly.
But at a certain point we want to let the beliefs lie and learn more about the two eccentric sisters; unfortunately, we learn just a few tantalizing tidbits and a general sketch of their lives. The most interesting and human aspects of the play seem to lie just outside of its true field of focus. It’s made especially frustrating because Eubanks and Bond are so compellingly funny as the sisters. And although “Savannah” is in the title, and the sisters are clearly southern in accent and mannerisms, the play doesn’t concern itself too much with giving us a strong sense of place.
A play that sets two clashing systems of belief at odds certainly sounds as though it would be hefty, but in the end, it makes for a somewhat light evening. The second half of the show contains way too much Biblical explication and quotation, and ultimately we don’t want to condemn or extol the sisters for their beliefs. We’d just like to get to the heart of their relationship, which is a place the play doesn’t really take us for long.