If you haven’t been “saved” yet, you’ll feel holier than thou after you’ve seen “The Savannah Disputation” at Florida Studio Theatre.
Director Kate Alexander, who describes the play best as reflective of a “dogma eat dogma world,” energetically and shrewdly referees this hilarious smackdown between two Christian super sects.
Although it initially opened to mixed reviews in New York and has been dismissed by highbrow critics as a funny but silly and insubstantial sitcom, the play has undergone a recent, highly successful revival.
Playwright Evan Smith was inspired to write a religious satire during the 2002 midterm elections, while he was living in Savannah, Ga. He was intrigued by the sudden intrusion into politics of the religious right, so he launched into a study of the Bible and the views of Protestant evangelicals and their detestation of the Roman Catholic Church.
Even funnier than the skewering of fanatically held beliefs are the characterizations Smith contrived to represent those beliefs. He’s accomplished the seemingly impossible task of bringing to life characters simultaneously stereotypical and vulnerably believable. They are empathy-deserving beings doing their best to find comfort in the face of their own mortality.
FST has a brilliant and beatifically entertaining cast for this production. The main characters in the ensemble are two Catholic spinsters, in whose living room the action takes place. Like so many sisters, Margaret and Mary can be described as a salt-and-pepper pair.
Susan Greenhill fabulously captures every nuance of Margaret, a kind, loving, naive, wouldn’t-hurt-a-fly innocent who declares, “I’m smart enough to know I’m stupid.” Greenhill is an FST veteran who has appeared in numerous TV shows.
Lisa McMillan, recently seen in “Sheer Madness” at FST, provokingly plays Mary, self-satisfied, strong-willed and outspoken, to perfection. Her Broadway credits include “La Cage Aux Folles.”
Lindsey Wochley plays Melissa, the door-to-door evangelical who comes calling at the sisters’ home. Wonderfully unexpected, her character is more of a hot babe than a card-carrying missionary, and her approach to her messianic calling is more reminiscent of a well-organized vacuum salesperson working her way through college.
Sheffield Chastain as Father Murphy successfully straddles a fine line between prototypical Irish priest and realistic, lonely individual. Chastain made a hilarious appearance in “The 39 Steps” this year at FST.
April Soroko captures the visuals in both scenic and costume design. David M. Upton provided the lighting design, with stage management by Will Willoughby.