Miami’s Zoetic Stage has been nearly unerring in its play choices since it launched at the end of 2010. Whether or not the company was due for a clunker, it has come up with one in Evan Smith’s The Savannah Disputation.
Oh, the acting, direction and production values are all of the high quality that helped Zoetic win a trio of Carbonell Awards earlier this month (though a couple of the performers distractingly botched character names on opening night). But the play itself could use a dramaturg, a rewrite or both.
Staged by artistic director Stuart Meltzer in Zoetic’s home at the Arsht Center’s Carnival Studio Theater, the comedy involves a theological smack down between a hot young Pentecostal evangelist named Melissa (Lindsey Forgey) and scholarly Catholic priest Patrick Murphy (John Felix). The battleground is the tidily kept Savannah home of two older Catholic sisters, cranky Mary (Barbara Bradshaw) and meek Margaret (Laura Turnbull).
On its surface, The Savannah Disputation is about clashing religious views and the difficulty -- or impossibility -- of converting someone with unshakeable, clearly different beliefs; Melissa’s ringtone is, in fact, the theme from Mission: Impossible. On a deeper level, the playwright touches on many other ideas. They include blind faith vs. scholarly biblical analysis, respect (or the lack of it) for the beliefs of others, the enduring consequences of personal choices, and the fears that come with aging, as thoughts of heaven and hell and an afterlife become more worrying.
That’s lots of ground to cover for a play that essentially goes nowhere (recurring calls from a doctor’s office urging Mary to come in for test results are a vivid example of a dramatic setup with no payoff) . The characters do experience little flashes of insight, but no one greatly changes from beginning to end. Smith crafts some decent laugh lines, but at least in this script, he doesn’t display a distinctive voice.
What makes The Savannah Disputation watchable for its two-hour, intermission-free running time are unexpected bits of wit (Meltzer, doubling as sound designer, gives us a country version of the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil), the lived-in and just-right look of set designer Jodi Dellaventura’s version of the sisters’ home, and (those blown names notwithstanding) the actors’ strong work.
Bradshaw gets the juiciest role, playing the domineering and mean-spirited Mary for laughs until it’s time to burrow down to the reasons for her behavior, which the actress does with moving power. Though Turnbull is stuck in a part with less potential, she burnishes mousy Margaret with subtle comic touches as she communicates unwavering sweetness and loyalty. Felix gets to display Father Murphy’s laid-back, intellectual and judgmental qualities, and he navigates all of them convincingly. Forgey plays Melissa as earnest but flawed, a luminous gal whose Jesus-loves-you platitudes eventually give way to her ugly hellfire take on Catholicism.
Zoetic’s just-announced 2013-2014 season looks strong: a pair of world premieres from South Florida playwrights Michael McKeever and Christopher Demos-Brown, Stephen Sondheim’s edgy musical Assassins, plus The Great God Pan by hot playwright Amy Herzog. If, after The Savannah Disputation, the new season proves to be a return to form for Zoetic, that will be a good thing.