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picture - The Savannah DisputationTheater Review

by Harvey Perr

published March 6, 2009


The Savannah Disputation

now playing Off Broadway at Playwrights Horizons

through March 15


Mary is mean and Margaret is mild-mannered and, while neither of those qualities defines their Catholicism, it might be argued that their approach to Catholism might define the qualities they happen to possess. It is, of course, the one argument in Evan Smith’s The Savannah Disputation that does not get tossed about in the course of the play. But what Dana Ivey brings to Mary and what Marylouise Burke brings to Margaret tells us more than the playwright seems interested in and, to at least one reviewer, the relationship between the sisters, as created by the Mesdames Ivey and Burke, is more interesting than any of the arguments offered up by Mr. Smith.


In form and structure, The Savannah Disputation is the stuff of television drama. Melissa, an overbearing young Christian bent on converting Catholics to Evangelism, rings their doorbell when Mary is at home and gets the door slammed in her face. When she comes back a day later, Margaret lets her get her foot in the door, which is all Melissa needs. After this set-up, a meeting between the three is planned, and Mary elicits the company of their parish priest, Father Murphy, as support. Mary. Margaret. Melissa. Murphy. Mmmmm. And the discussion – from every angle, from every point of view – that ensues not only touches on every possible base but on a few you might not have thought of. And it’s a lively debate at that, often very funny; and, if you’re going to see a play that is, in essence, a debate, you couldn’t ask for a better company of actors to carry on the debate. And it’s fair to say that, because the actors are as good as they are, the personal stuff – the stuff that reveals something telling about character, in particular – does come through. Kellie Overbey is Melissa and Reed Birney is Father Murphy and they are both solid and reliable actors in the less rewarding roles in this quintet.


picture - The Savannah DisputationThere is also a breeziness to Smith’s style that is complemented perfectly by the breeziness of Walter Bobbie’s direction. And a breeze seems to blow right thorough the house that John Lee Beatty has designed, a house that the sisters seem to have decorated after watching a season of  The Golden Girls (or, to tell the truth, any sitcom). This is meant as praise; if television does not depict reality, then reality is apt to move right in and imitate television.


But again and again, what it always comes back to is the house’s inhabitants, the two dizzily charming women who might be just as at-home serving poisoned elderberry wine to lonely old men, if you get my drift. The steel in Ms. Ivey’s spine and the Slinky in Ms. Burke’s shoulders are wonderful contrasts; better even is the fact that, despite their differences, they make you wholly believe that they are sisters, locked into their lonely existences which their Catholicism cannot really touch. There is, one feels, a powerful play lying there. Or maybe I’m just saying that these actors are so good, it would be wonderful to see them sparring or playing together in a play truly worthy of their talents. Until then, The Savannah Disputation is, at least, a more pleasant evening in the theater than reading the telephone book to each other would have been.


harveyperr @



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