Dopey Doctrinal Skirmishes, Deep South Version

‘The Savannah Disputation’ is a frothy and funny religious romp at Live Theatre Workshop

Mary, a disagreeable old cuss in sensible shoes, is a faithful Catholic who always has Father Murphy over for dinner on Thursdays and who never misses Mass on Sundays. Staying home from church would be unthinkable. After all, her fellow parishioners aren't going to complain about themselves. That's her job.

Here's a woman who long ago accepted that other people are largely unacceptable, and she sees no reason not to put them in their place. She puts the battle in battle-axe every chance she gets.

Mary (Rhonda Hallquist) shares a crucifix-laden home in Savannah with her sister Margaret (Carlisle Ellis), a Catholic of a very different color. The tension between Mary, a self-satisfied bat on wheels, and the dithering, eternally sweet Margaret lends electricity to "The Savannah Disputation," a comedy that kept the opening-night audience in stitches last Saturday at Live Theatre Workshop.

The play by Georgia-born Evan Smith, first performed in 2007, has plenty of laugh-inducing one-liners. But it's the actors, led by the impeccable team of Hallquist and Ellis, who take this slight entertainment and make it something slightly more than a sitcom.

The sisters are lifelong Catholics, but we quickly learn they are not. The particulars of their faith are called into question when theological conflict comes knocking on their door. The stranger on their doorstep is Melissa, a perky blond Evangelical wearing platform shoes, skin-tight jeans and a Bible-thick smile.

The overeager door-to-door missionary (played with zealous abandon by Candace Bean) has taken it upon herself to save the souls of heathens in her midst, Catholics in particular.

Melissa's steamroller-style proselytizing earns her a hand in the face from Mary, who tells her to scram before she calls the cops.

"You don't have to tell me that Jesus loves me," Mary scoffs. "It's you he hates."

But dear old Margaret, who would fall for a rattlesnake if it stuck around long enough, complicates the situation by treating the interloper with kind trepidation. The sisters know that Melissa is wrong when she insults their faith, but damned if they can hang with her when it comes to the spouting of scripture.

Mary, determined to win the debate over doctrine without getting her hands dirty, decides to put the irritating Little Miss Sunshine into a biblical cage fight with Father Murphy. This will be the juiciest Thursday dinner in ages, she figures. And when it's done, the toothsome Pentecostal will be crushed.

The evening does not go according to plan, of course. Father Murphy (played with breezy flair by Keith Wick), in a most contrary mood, succeeds only in making everyone question the tenets they hold dear.

"The Savannah Disputation," directed by Sabian Trout, moves swiftly as the religious debate swings back and forth for 90 minutes. There's not much to it, but I had a hell of a good time.

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