'The Savannah Disputation'

Demons lurk beneath the sunny exteriors of Christians in Theatre in the Square's fall opener


“The Savannah Disputation”

Grade: B -

8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays. 2:30 and 7 p.m. Sundays. 2:30 p.m. Sept. 9 Through Sept. 13. $22-$33. (2:30 p.m. matinee, Sept. 9, $18; no 7 p.m. show Sept. 13.) Theatre in the Square, 11 Whitlock Ave., Marietta. 770-422-8369, theatreinthesquare.com

Could it be that religion is just a subterfuge for meanness and ignorance? Is it appropriate to knock on a total stranger’s door and challenge that person’s faith? What happens when we realize we don’t believe an apostle’s prayer we have been uttering for as long as we can remember?

These aren’t the kinds of questions you’d expect to emerge from a comedy, let alone a play like Evan Smith’s “The Savannah Disputation,” which opens the fall season of Marietta’s Theatre in the Square and suggests a rollicking, zinger-strewn domestic sitcom as written by a Christian disciple of Alfred Uhry.

Where the Atlanta-born Uhry mines the landscape of Southern Jewry for its comedic peculiarities and human commonalities, Savannah-born Smith peeks into the living room of another religious minority living in the historically Protestant Deep South — Roman Catholics.

Two aging Savannah sisters — sweet-natured spinster Margaret (Nita Hardy) and bullying divorcee Mary (Judy Leavell) — inhabit a cozy living room decorated with granny-square afghans, religious statuary and a requisite photograph of JFK. All it takes to upset their neatly ordered universe is a perky blonde Christian fundamentalist (Mary Kathryn Kaye) with a religious pamphlet depicting a man rising from his grave in modern-day attire.

Though Mary shoos proselytizing Melissa away and threatens to call the police if she returns, ding-batty Margaret is a much easier target for the fashionably appointed Bible thumper. Pretty soon, pithy one-liners give way to a full-out catfight, and Mary invites a priest disguised as a dinner guest (Peter Thomasson) to mitigate the conflict and make a case for the Throne of St. Peter.

This being the stuff that’s spawned several centuries’ worth of religious wars and conflict, things don’t turn out so prettily.

In an interview with the New York Times, Smith — who has a master’s degree from the Yale School of Drama and an impressive off-Broadway résumé — calls his play a debate between The Religious Right and The Religious Right (well put) and says it was inspired by national politics — and his Savannah grandmother.

With solid instincts for timing and dialogue, Smith attempts to navigate the tricky middle ground between zany comedy and social commentary. He does a pretty nice job, too, but something about the vicious intent of his characters may leave you feeling a little icky. How is it that lovers of Christ can turn out to be so nasty?

Directed by Jessica Phelps West and handsomely designed by Isabel A. Curley-Clay (sets) and Moriah Curley-Clay (costumes), it is a solid, well-acted production. (Leavell — an actress who seems to have hit her stride in her senior years — is particularly fine.) But Smith’s scathing account of the demons lurking under the sunny exteriors of small-town America doesn’t necessarily make for pleasant theater-going. More spiritually complicated than it appears to be at first glance, “The Savannah Disputation” is every bit as unsettling as it is entertaining.