“Good mornin', ma'am. Are you saved?”
That question, delivered by a newly minted Christian proselytizer to an elderly devout Catholic, opens a seriocomic theological can of worms in “The Savannah Disputation” at the Colony Theatre in Burbank.
In the Los Angeles premiere of Evan Harris' humorous and thought-provoking exploration of faith and the underlying complexities of human need that fuels it, Melissa is a young woman with a mission: to convert Catholics to her splinter fundamentalist Christian church.
Initially rejected by outraged Mary, one of two Catholic sisters who share a home, Melissa is subsequently invited in by shy sister Margaret, out of loneliness and a senior citizen's sense of traditional Southern politeness.
Margaret is charmed by Melissa's youthful zest and earnest hand-patting compassion, but she grows increasingly troubled by her visitor's certainty that Catholicism is not the way to salvation.
Directed by Cameron Watson, with a light touch and his signature sensitivity to how the past shapes the present, the top-flight cast includes Anne Gee Byrd, Bonnie Bailey-Reed and Rebecca Mozo as the primary combatants in this war of words.
Mozo's Melissa, with pony-tailed perkiness, true-believer's smile and studied sweetness, uses the same dulcet tones whether assuring Margaret that all Catholics are doomed to suffer hellfire, or offering compliments on the sisters' well-worn home décor. (The play's theme is reflected in Stephen Gifford's lived-in interior set design, effectively lit by Jared A. Sayeg and framed by moss-draped branches and a church-like pitched roof.)
Equally adept at revealing what lies beneath the high-wattage smile when Melissa begins to lose her grip on her “love the sin, not the sinner” approach, Mozo's performance is deft and witty.
Bailey-Reed is a study in poignancy and comic befuddlement as Margaret. Billowy of body, sweet and vague, she provides a direct contrast to Byrd's memorable Mary, whose dry angularity is a pitch-perfect vehicle for acidic remarks and the barely contained anger of someone who refuses to suffer fools and is no stranger to Prozac.
Incensed that her impressionable sister is upset, Mary sets the stage for an escalating clash between opposing extremes, arranging for the young missionary's return on the night that parish priest Father Murphy will be there to “crush her” with his superior biblical knowledge.
The unsuspecting Melissa arrives armed with stacks of pamphlets and a Bible bristling with post-it strips, but Josh Clark's self-contained Father Murphy, an involuntary member of the “disputation,” feels too superior to engage. Clark adroitly shifts his role as sideline observer to academic pedant as Father Murphy wades into the fray.
The ensuing discussion of biblical texts and church doctrine, however, has an unintended consequence: Mary's defiant act of apostasy in a tour-de-force performance by Byrd that nearly stops the show.
Who can lay claim to “the one true religion” won't be decided in this 90-minute play any more than it has been throughout history (albeit with laughs and without the bloodshed). But Harris' subtle revelation of what feeds his characters' fear of being alone and adrift does underscore how organized religion, even at its most extreme, is for many a reassuring haven of codified mores, social structure and like-minded community.
LYNNE HEFFLEY is a writer on theater and culture for Marquee.
“The Savannah Disputation”
Where: Colony Theatre, 555 N. Third St., Burbank.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Ends July 8.
Tickets and info: $20-$42. (818) 558-7000, Ext. 15; www.ColonyTheatre.org