How many times, both onstage and in real life, has the scene been set for comic or dramatic disruption by the simple ringing of a doorbell? Chalk up one more time with Evan Smith’s The Savannah Disputation, now onstage at Florida Studio Theatre.
The ringer at the door is Melissa (Lindsey Wochley), a young evangelical determined to convert all those whom she believes are doomed to hell unless they join her church. The ringees, so to speak, are a pair of Savannah sisters, Margaret (Susan Greenhill) and Mary (Lisa McMillan), who are Catholics by birth if not necessarily by well-informed choice. (And if their names sound sort of biblical, that’s probably intentional, too.)
Sheffield Chastain, Lindsey Wochley, Susan Greenhill and Lisa McMillan in The Savannah Disputation. Photo by Maria Lyle
Mary, the brash, domineering sister, will have none of what Melissa has to sell, and she’s got no qualms about being rude, either. But Margaret, who’s anxiously awaiting test results from her doctor’s office, has her own need to be certain about the safety of her soul. Plus, she’s a gentle if somewhat dotty character who just can’t turn Melissa away.
A fourth character in this comedy, Father Murphy (Sheffield Chastain), is at first a neutral figure, just dropping by for dinner with the two older ladies and in the dark about Mary’s intention to pit his theological might against Melissa’s. But eventually he gets drawn in, as he and Melissa demonstrate for the audience that the reading of almost every quote from the Bible can mean just about anything the interpreters want it to.
Smith’s setup is classic, and he has lots of comic irons in the fire, meaning that no one on either side of the dogma divide is going to end up unscorched. But we can feel sympathy for these characters, too. Mary’s anti-Melissa zeal is fueled in part by a personal loss in her past, and Melissa herself, while fervently preaching the word, is also prone to wearing provocative clothing and wants a man in her life almost as much as she wants Jesus. As is so often the case, everyone has their reasons, and these genuine Southern eccentrics are not likely to change the beliefs that help define them.
The action, directed at a high pitch from the opening scene on by Kate Alexander, all takes place in a comfortable Southern-style home (designed by April Soroko) draped by Spanish moss outside and filled with religious iconography inside. The performers are all up to the demands of Smith’s rapid-fire religious debate, and there are well-planned moments that break the tension, too. It might not hurt to vary the pacing of this show a little more, and to try to keep things a wee bit more believable rather than merely (but highly) entertaining.
But overall The Savannah Disputation crackles along with welcome, frequently sly wit on a topic unlikely to turn stale. The show continues through Sept. 4; call 366-9000 or go to floridastudiotheatre.org.