THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
STAGE REVIEW

In a theological tug of war, the laughs win

Melissa (Carolyn Charpie, right) is an over-the-top evangelical zealot trying to persuade a timid Margaret (Paula Plum) to renounce her Roman Catholicism. Melissa (Carolyn Charpie, right) is an over-the-top evangelical zealot trying to persuade a timid Margaret (Paula Plum) to renounce her Roman Catholicism. (Mark L. Saperstein)
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / September 25, 2009

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‘Dying is easy. Comedy is hard,’’ an actor supposedly said on his deathbed. Yes, and comedy about religion may be hardest of all.

But SpeakEasy Stage Company brings it off in fine style in a production of Evan Smith’s “The Savannah Disputation,’’ thanks to a quartet of first-rate performances led by Nancy E. Carroll and Paula Plum.

Is “The Savannah Disputation’’ groundbreaking? No. Is it profound? Not really, though its merry clash of ideas does suggest that, theatrically speaking, a spoonful of sugar helps the metaphysics go down. But is it funny? Most definitely.

It’s clear that with a less capable ensemble and a less sure-handed director than Paul Daigneault, certain elements of “Disputation’’ could be cloying or obvious. This is a play that occasionally tilts toward sitcom superficiality. But Carroll, Plum, and company consistently yank it back on track, into the realm of the plausibly and richly human.

Improbable as it may sound to Bostonians (including this onetime altar boy), “Disputation’’ turns a quiet home in Savannah, Ga., of all places, into a theological battleground in which the finer points of Roman Catholic doctrine are thrashed out.

On one side are two aging sisters, curmudgeonly Mary (Carroll), seemingly born with a scowl on her face, and timid, fluttering Margaret (Plum), who seems perpetually poised on the verge of flight. Mary and Margaret are lifelong Catholics, but it will turn out that their grasp on the tenets of their faith is shaky.

On the other side is Melissa (Carolyn Charpie), a peppy, Bible-brandishing young evangelical missionary who is determined to persuade the sisters - or at least Margaret - to renounce Catholicism and thus save their eternal souls. When Margaret protests that, after all, Catholics believe in Jesus, Melissa serenely replies: “Well, yes, but not in exactly the right way. Not in the way that gets you into heaven.’’

“So Catholics don’t get into heaven?’’ Margaret asks anxiously. Melissa: “Well, it’s bad form for me to say this so soon, but no.’’ Margaret: “You think I’m going to hell?’’ Melissa: “Well, you seem awfully nice. . .’’ Margaret: “Thank you. You do, too.’’ Melissa: “Thanks. But - nice don’t save ya from hellfire.’’

All this infuriates Mary, who mobilizes a secret weapon in the person of Father Patrick Murphy (Timothy Crowe). She invites the priest to dinner and arranges for young Melissa to arrive shortly thereafter, in hopes the worldly and scholarly Father Murphy will rebut Melissa’s ideas and restore Margaret’s shaken faith (and maybe Mary’s as well).

Well, he does and he doesn’t. The ensuing living-room debate ranges into some arcane territory that raises as many questions for the sisters as it answers: What did Jesus say and mean, exactly, when he called Peter the rock on which the church would be built? How absolute is the authority of the pope? What does Catholic doctrine say about the resurrection of the body? How literally should the Bible be construed?

If this sounds dreary, trust me, it isn’t. The theological back-and-forth shines a light on the combatants’ personalities, so we get a glimpse into, if not the souls, then at least the hearts and minds of four people who are secretly grappling with doubt, fear, loneliness, and regret about paths not taken.

Along the way, there are plenty of laughs, the lion’s share of them generated by Carroll, though Plum also works wonders with her more reactive role. It’s not that the cast is better than the material, exactly, but “Disputation’’ does contain pitfalls, and part of the enjoyment of this production is watching the cast step so nimbly around them.

Carroll’s Mary could be simply a one-note crank, and Plum’s Margaret naught but a simpering doormat, but instead their portrayals are as layered and multifaceted as we have come to expect from two of Boston’s best actresses.

Charpie, who graduated last year from Boston College, brings both energy and skill to her SpeakEasy debut. Her character, Melissa, is the pink-jacketed incarnation of over-the-top zealotry, yet Charpie endows her with a touching vulnerability. (Unfortunately, having taken some small steps toward humanizing her, playwright Smith turns Melissa back into a cartoon figure at the end of the play.)

As for Father Murphy, he could come across as a pompous know-it-all. But Crowe, a former seminarian, delivers a finely etched performance that communicates both the priest’s dry wit and the sense that deep spiritual wisdom can be as much burden as blessing.

In other words, faith is a complicated business - and even sometimes, as “Disputation’’ shows, a funny business, too.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

THE SAVANNAH DISPUTATION

Play by Evan Smith

Directed by: Paul Daigneault. Set, Eric Levenson. Costumes, Gail Astrid Buckley. Lights, Daniel H. Jentzen.

At: SpeakEasy Stage Company, through Oct. 17. Tickets: $30-$50. 617-933-8600, www.Boston TheatreScene.com

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