Review: ‘The Savannah Disputation’ at The Little Theatre of Alexandria

If you never thought the words “theological comedy” could go together, think again. The Savannah Disputation, playing now at The Little Theater of Alexandria, bills itself as just such a comedy. And it was simultaneously the most uproarious and the most profound evening of theater I’ve experienced in quite some time.

Mary Jo Morgan as Mary, Michael Fisher as Father Murphy and Patricia Spencer Smith as Margaret in 'The Savannah Disputation' at the Little Theatre of Alexandria. Photo by Kyle Reardon.
Mary Jo Morgan as Mary, Michael Fisher as Father Murphy and Patricia Spencer Smith as Margaret in ‘The Savannah Disputation’ at the Little Theatre of Alexandria. Photo by Kyle Reardon.

Mary Jo Morgan is a force of nature as Mary, an elderly Southern Catholic woman with a personality that could (and does) drive a priest to drink. The first thing we see Mary do is slam the door on Melissa (Ashley Amidon), an eager evangelist on her doorstep. Undeterred, Melissa comes back another day, and this time gets a warmer reception from Mary’s timid, sweet-tempered sister, Margaret (Patricia Spencer Smith).

Margaret courteously gives Melissa a hearing, and finds herself troubled when she doesn’t have good answers to the young fundamentalist’s arguments. Furious when she discovers what’s going on, Mary invites Melissa back on the night when the sisters are having Father Patrick Murphy (Michael J. Fisher) over for dinner, in hopes that the priest will “crush her.” But once these four are assembled, events quickly take a turn for the unexpected. The stakes are raised, unobtrusively but unavoidably, by occasional voice mail messages from the doctor’s office, suggesting that one of these characters may soon be dealing firsthand with eternal questions.

Anyone who’s spent any time in the company of the faithful will recognize elements of the personalities on display here: the dogmatic fighter whose fierceness masks her ignorance; the true believer whose private life is more complicated than she lets on; the quiet man of God who’s reluctant to get drawn into battle. There’s a realism to each side’s accusations toward the other side that hits home. But Evan Smith’s excellent script doesn’t stereotype or caricature any of them. It treats them and their convictions with both respect and affectionate humor. Even as they take turns challenging or even beating up on each other’s beliefs, it suggests that those beliefs are robust enough to handle it.

All four actors are more than up to the challenge of fleshing out these intriguing characters in realistic and appealing ways. Amidon nicely balances Melissa’s “aggressive” side with her sincere humility and sweetness. Her concern for the sisters is real, and she’s willing to undergo a certain amount of humiliation in carrying out her mission, but she can be as devastatingly cruel as Mary when pushed too far.

Smith masterfully brings out the core of steel in the gentle Margaret, which adds weight to her clashes with the more forceful Mary. Fisher has little to do at first, but more than once manages to bring the house down with just a look or gesture. Over the course of the evening, he emerges as a figure of vastly underestimated intelligence and power. His speech about the experience of lifelong singleness and celibacy is moving without ever becoming melodramatic.

Ashley Amidon as Melissa in 'The Savannah Disputation' at the Little Theatre of Alexandria. Photo by Kyle Reardon.
Ashley Amidon as Melissa in ‘The Savannah Disputation’ at the Little Theatre of Alexandria. Photo by Kyle Reardon.

John Burgess’s creative set design blends elements of church (stained glass windows, religious statues) and home (dinner table, TV set) to create the perfect setting for a theological disputation. The costumes, done by Amidon, are understated but effective, as is Franklin Coleman’s lighting. Director Will Jarred keeps the pace snappy, bringing out both humor and pathos without ever sliding into slapstick or sentimentality. Handling tough subjects with a light heart, The Savannah Disputation is a rare treat both for those already familiar with the clashes of Catholic and Protestant, and those who never imagined that faith could be so much fun.

Running Time: Approximately 1 hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission.

The Savannah Disputation plays through May 18, 2019, at the Little Theatre of Alexandria, 600 Wolfe Street, Alexandria, VA 22314. Purchase tickets online.