No dispute over the Savannah Disputation

The Savannah Disputation is chock full of all three in its New England premiere through Oct. 17 at the SpeakEasy Stage at the Boston Center for the Arts.,A play about religion doesn’t have to sound like it was transcribed from a post-church conversation-it can have humor, snappy writing and solid characters.

The Savannah Disputation is chock full of all three in its New England premiere through Oct. 17 at the SpeakEasy Stage at the Boston Center for the Arts. It is a play well worth seeing for its laughs and respectful handling of a sensitive topic.

Savannah’s amusing on some level to all, but it is probably best appreciated with a background understanding of religion.

A personal familiarity with the questioning of faith and the challenging of the devoted helps to understand what the characters go through in the play.

The plot itself isn’t complex-it centers on a young, cheery missionary, Melissa (Carolyn Charpie), who knocks on the door of two older Catholic sisters, the cranky bulldog Mary (Nancy E. Carroll) and the sweet but simple Margaret (Paula Plum).

After Margaret is frightened by the young proselytizer’s tales of damnation, Mary invites her and the local Catholic priest, Father Murphy (Timothy Crowe), over for a theological showdown of sorts to see whose religion is the real ‘truth.’

Thankfully, the story steers clear of preaching and the religious labyrinth that usually follows-the plot stays grounded in the characters, who are engagin in head-to-head spiritual debate. Focusing on the people rather than their discourse allows Savannah to avoid a sermonizing tone: It remains a theatrical comedy.

The delicate reliance on the characters works well because the characters themselves are all strongly written and brilliantly acted, with a knockout performance by Carroll as Mary.

Carroll, who has many of the best lines in the play, delivers them perfectly and with physicality to match. Having established herself as a “mean” person, Mary is allowed to say or do exactly what is on her mind – a practice that shocks in real life but injects plentiful humor into a play.

At one point, when Father Murphy has just pointed out one of Melissa’s incorrect facts, Mary drops to one knee behind her, silently raising a triumphant touchdown gesture with unabashed glee.

As a pair, Margaret and Mary are an older, Catholic female Odd Couple-one welcoming,

and one thorny, but both devoted to each other.

The sisters’ presence is evident before they take the stage-the set, decked with a plush sofa and armchair, is reminiscent of a grandmother’s house.

Meanwhile the knit Kleenex box cover, red with a white cross, and statues of the Madonna and saints all speak to their faith. It is the perfect environment for the clash of two Christian sects.

Melissa, the self-termed “Catholic missionary” on a mission to convert Catholics, is a gung-ho follower of her particular branch of Christianity. Still, she remains human despite her zealousness and penchant for explaining why something like yoga is a pagan ritual that invites the devil into the house.

As the non-confrontational priest who is unwittingly dragged into the argument, Father Murphy is honest and open about the inconsistencies of Biblical interpretation

between sects-and even in the Bible itself.

Because Savannah includes all levels of devotion to a faith, it doesn’t become three Catholics ganging up on a missionary. On one side there’s Melissa, who is overeager in her zeal to spread her brand of religion to others.

On the other end of the spectrum there’s Mary, who goes through the motions (attending church and receiving the sacraments) but fails to practice the basic teachings like refusing to wish people she doesn’t like ‘peace’ in church. Margaret believes what she is told but does not understand why, which leaves her vulnerable

to doubt and manipulation.

Finally, Father Murphy has studied enough to accept that there are things he will never be able to understand, which is why religion involves a leap of faith.

There are a couple unresolved plot points at the end, but the play is otherwise seamless and always entertaining. It balances questions with humor and is more of a comedy than a soul-searching drama.

One of theater’s many functions is that it asks and debates questions-sometimes through farce, sometimes through drama, sometimes by merely putting an everyday scene in a viewing context.

It is refreshing to encounter a work of art which, without disrespecting religion in the process, manages to both entertain and open the door for thought and discussion of what it means to believe.

The Savannah Disputation does both-and is a must-see because of it.