For socially liberal Christians, secular humanists, agnostics, and/or atheists, there may seem to be little difference these days between Catholics and Evangelicals. Both would appear to be anti-gay, anti-abortion, and anti-anything that contradicts the strict tenets of their faiths.

Pit a die-hard Pentecostal against a die-hard Papist, however, and you will stand corrected once each side begins attempting to prove the other wrong.

This is precisely what playwright Evan Smith does to hilarious and thought-provoking effect in The Savannah Disputation, his highly intelligent comedy now getting its Los Angeles Premiere after a New York debut and a slew of well-received regional productions.

 Directed with attention to character and detail by the ever amazing Cameron Watson, The Savannah Disputation places in opposition a pair of elderly Southern Catholic siblings, Mary (Anne Gee Byrd) and Margaret (Bonnie Bailey-Reed), and the evangelical missionary (Rebecca Mozo) who comes a-calling.

Though Mary makes damn sure to slam the door in her uninvited visitor’s face, nothing so insignificant as a slammed door will keep a determined Born Again down. Curvy blonde Melissa is soon back undeterred by that initial rejection, and since this time it’s Margaret who opens the door, Melissa not only gets herself into the sisters’ home, she manages to plant a seed of doubt in the more easily influenced sister’s head. Might both she and Mary be doomed to eternal damnation unless they renounce the Pope and start taking the Bible at its literal word?

Though the two cohabitating sisters are lifelong Catholics, in most other ways, they are as different as say a shark and a bunny rabbit.

Whereas vinegary Mary declares in no uncertain terms, “I hope she comes back so I can slam the door in her face again,” sweet tea-sweet Margaret is simply too nice to say no when Melissa invites herself back for a Sunday visit. Naturally, this news does not sit well with Mary, who insists, “If you’re nice to them, they just keep coming back. They’re like cats.”

And back indeed Melissa does come, armed with a colorful array of pamphlets and a certainty that despite a worldwide membership of only five thousand, the Evangelical Church Of The Holy Spirit Alliance Church is the One True Church, and woe be anyone making the mistake of calling her a Baptist. Not only is Melissa a True Believer, she is so passionate about her faith that she is planning on becoming a missionary, and not just any missionary. A “missionary to Catholics,” if you will.

Mary will have none of Melissa’s cheery “Jesus loves you!” “I know Jesus loves me,” she spits back. “It’s you he hates!” And as for Melissa’s sparsely populated evangelical sect, older sis can only declare, “Oh for God’s sake. Did you hear that? They’ve got ‘Church’ in their name twice!”

Still, despite her older sister’s admonitions, the irrepressibly nice Margaret can’t help wondering whether Melissa just might be right when she asserts with absolute sureness, “Nice don’t save ya from hellfire.”

And so, unable to convince Margaret to turn a deaf ear to Melissa’s proselytizing, Mary invites her nemesis over for dinner—but not before calling in reinforcements in the person of parish priest (and frequent dinner guest) Father Murphy (Josh Clark). Arriving unsuspecting (and looking nothing at all like a priest in his sports shirt and casual slacks), Father Murphy soon learns the reason for this particular invitation. “We want you to crush her,” Mary informs him about their pert, perky visitor. “We want you to demolish her.”

As to what comes next, well for that you’ll just have to head on out to the Colony, where one of its most popular directors has invited over three of his favorite leading ladies and a leading man every bit their equal for a production which matches his previous “On Golden Pond,” “Grace & Glorie,” and the Mozo-starring “Educating Rita” and “Trying.”

 Anne Gee Byrd is to L.A. theater what Vanessa Redgrave is to the London stage, an actress who can do no wrong and in so doing get a slew of award nominations for each and every role she undertakes—and win quite a few in the bargain, as she did for last year’s Watson-directed All My Sons and I Never Sang For My Father. The Savannah Disputation gives the veteran stage actress the rare chance to strut her comedic stuff, and strut it she does in spectacular fashion, and never more so than when comparing Mary’s innate penny-pinching with Margaret’s more lackadaisical attitude towards coin-counting, aghast that younger sister probably doesn’t even look at the receipt! Still, it is in dramatic moments that Byrd makes you realize just how special she is, as in Mary’s riveting, self-revelatory monolog which earns the stage vet a much-deserved round of applause.

For years an Actors Co-op treasure and the multiple award-winning star of their Gulf View Drive, Bailey-Reed is a revelation as Margaret, as she was when the naturally bubbly actress undertook the role of steely Kate Keller in her award-winning performance in the Co-op’s All My Sons (a role she and the very different Byrd have now both aced). Abandoning all vanity, Bailey-Reed turns frumpy as can be as the sweet but easily cowed Margaret, giving a performance of true grace and depth.

Watson muse Mozo once again proves herself one of L.A.’s finest and most versatile young leading ladies, her blond-highlighted, platform flip-flop-wearing Melissa about as far removed from Mozo’s star turns in Trying, Educating Rita, Doubt, Pera Palas, Peace In Our Time, etc., etc., etc. as … well as Mary is to Margaret—and that’s saying something! Mozo brings bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Melissa to colorful life without a hint of condescension or caricature—and quite splendidly indeed.

Clark, an Antaeus Company gem (as are Byrd and Mozo), completes the cast in terrific fashion, giving us a Father Murphy who’d rather be anywhere but in the company of these three feuding females, or at least that’s how the good padre feels until having had enough of seeing his religion attacked by a bleach blonde nincompoop.

Though not as perfect as it perhaps could be (an answering machine message about coming in to discuss test results proves frustratingly red herringish), Smith’s script is about as smart as they get, and one certain to inspire considerable audience talk once the final blows have been struck. Is the Southern Catholic playwright subtly taking sides, or is he instead wondering whether either church can possibly be right when each is so sure that the other is wrong? True, Smith uses Father Murphy’s erudition to trample Melissa’s misreading of ancient Biblical texts. On the other hand, the priest has to agree with Melissa’s assertion that Catholics have committed murder in their attempts to convert. (There was, after all, that pesky Spanish Inquisition.)

Whether or not you leave The Savannah Disputation feeling that one side or the other has come out victorious—or whether you decide that neither one has fared all that well, you will surely exit the theater better informed than you were when you entered, whether it’s about “the Resurrection Of The Body” or the difference between “Petros” and “petra” in “Thou art Petros, and upon that petra I build my church,” translated in the King James Version as “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church.”

As with any Colony Theatre production, The Savannah Disputation benefits from as fine a design team as there is in this or any American theater town. Scenic designer Stephen Gifford has created a gorgeous, finely detailed Southern home, Spanish moss hanging from the tree limbs above it and lit with a subtle beauty by lighting designer Jared A. Sayeg. Costume designer Kate Bergh’s outfits reveal so much attention to character, you’d swear that sisters, priest, and proselytizer had done their own shopping for the show. Rebecca Kessin’s sharp, clever sound design and MacAndME’s detail-attentive properties design and set dressing (lots of pamphlets and statuettes and just the DVDs the playwright ordered) are winners as well. Gil Tordjman is production stage manager, Robert T. Kyle technical director, Katie McDonough assistant director, and Susan Larkin dialect coach.

The Savannah Disputation opens The Colony Theatre’s 38th Season with the first of an entire season of World, West Coast, or Los Angeles Premieres, and a marvelous season opener it is. I wish I could be a fly on the wall at the production’s two scheduled talkback performances. If ever there were a play certain to set theatergoers to talking, The Savannah Disputation is that play—and then some.

Colony Theatre, 555 North Third Street, Burbank.

–Steven Stanley
June 16, 2012
Photos: Michael Lamont

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