Theater Info for the Washington DC region

Reston Community Players The Savannah Disputation

By • Jan 21st, 2013 • Category: Reviews
The Savannah Disputation
Reston Community Players Info Web
Reston Community Center, Reston, VA
Through February 2nd
1:50 with one intermission
$20/$17 Seniors, Juniors
Reviewed January 19th, 2013

The screen door says a lot about the quality of Reston Community Players’ production of Evan Smith’s The Savannah Disputation. On stage left, there are two windows flanking the door to the outside from the living room that is the set for the play. As characters enter and leave via the principal door, the audience is able to look through the windows to see the characters opening a screen door (presumably, to a verandah) behind the main portion of the set. Paying attention to, and executing, this level of detail is something that distinguishes an excellent production from an average one.

Every detail of the set, designed and dressed by Maggie Modig and Mike Smith, respectively, creates a realistic middle-class living room shared by the play’s two 60ish, unmarried sisters, Mary (Barbara Wilson) and Margaret (Gayle Nichols-Grimes). The wall colors, furniture, arrangement of the set into a dining area and a TV nook, and the pictures on the walls (religious and otherwise) all contribute to the environment in which these women live in dual solitude among their comforts.

Likewise, the perfectly ordinary clothing the characters wear (like a frumpy dress for Margaret, a pants suit for Mary, informal “civilian” clothes for Father Murphy) emphasize the everyday life depicted in the play while underlining the nature of each of the characters. The lighting subtly changes with the time of day, and the sound cues – most notably some cell phone ring tones and repeated ominous phone messages about medical test results being ready – are also executed flawlessly.

The loveliness of the production details carries over into the acting. As Father Murphy, Mark Yeager has the fewest lines of any of the play’s four characters, but his facial and bodily reactions to the lines of the other three are finely tuned and perfectly timed, being in themselves worth the price of admission. Yeager’s Murphy is an interestingly complex character: intelligent, well-educated, urbane, readily able to admit — at an intellectual level — difficulties in his church’s beliefs, compassionate toward others, and yet as severely orthodox and authoritarian as any Vatican bureaucrat could wish.

Nichols-Grimes portrays Margaret as a sweet, kind, rather dim, emotionally fragile lady who has, almost without realizing it, resigned herself to a life of quiet desperation. She seeks comfort in religion (though it is her sister, not her, who regularly goes to mass), but she is easily unmoored from her certainty when a fledgling missionary from a fringe fundamentalist group, Melissa (Lori Brooks), tells her that her Catholicism will lead her straight to hell. Deeply frightened that her life after death will not be what she has imagined from her faith, she has enough gumption to stand up to her domineering sister’s commands by inviting Melissa back to talk about Bible questions.

Wilson’s Mary, on the other hand, is not one to allow her desperation to be quiet. Cantankerous, curmudgeonly, and confrontational in her dealings with everyone she encounters, she has no filters to moderate the expression of her anger and disappointment about her life. She clings to the anchor of being, in her mind, right about everything, particularly her understanding of what the Catholic church says and its unbending rules of conduct. Wilson delivers a virtuoso performance of Mary’s long monologue in the fourth scene, in which she argues strenuously that she has done what she is supposed to have done and does not merit going to hell; moreover, if the church is not teaching what she has always believed, she will leave (she even phones the bishop to demand excommunication). As the monologue goes on, the lifelong pain behind Mary’s hostility becomes ever more apparent.

Brooks’ ultra-perky and insecure Melissa, much the youngest of the group, has her own disappointments (a failed marriage, a relationship with her evidently unpleasant pastor/boyfriend), leaving her to cling to a virulently anti-Catholic theology that she only superficially understands. As written, Melissa and her beliefs come perilously close to caricature, but Brooks succeeds in making Melissa a believable and even sympathetic person, who cannot help wearing her vulnerabilities on her sleeve.

To director Bernie Cohen’s credit, the four actors play seamlessly together, the pace and tone of their interactions being completely natural and credible for the people they are. There isn’t a false note all evening. Cohen also uses the space well, using the dining area for most of the characters’ discussions while reserving the TV nook for Mary when she is particularly isolated, both in her long monologue and in an earlier sequence when she watches the tube while the others talk among themselves.

In Cohen’s program note, he likens the show to an episode of “The Golden Girls,” an analogy that has been drawn by reviewers of several productions of the play, from the New York Times on down. I beg to differ. While the play is a very funny one, with laugh lines aplenty, it is ultimately much darker than the popular sitcom. The key line of the play, for me, comes when Melissa mistakenly calls Father Murphy “Father McKenzie.” Murphy quickly corrects her, pointing out that Father McKenzie was the priest in “Eleanor Rigby.”

In their own ways, all the characters in The Savannah Disputation live in an Eleanor Rigby world. Even the youthful Melissa is lonely, as one of the other characters comments. Mary’s husband left her years ago, and her belief in Catholic rules prevented her from trying again. Margaret’s one-time boyfriend never asked her to marry him. Their lives have assumed, for the next 30+ years, the same, repetitious, solitary pattern. Their religious beliefs offer them no way out of their loneliness. Margaret may passively accept their situation, and Mary may rage against it, but neither envisions any possibility of change.

Father Murphy acquiesces in the celibacy required for his job. When the loneliness gets too great, he writes books on obscure points of theology (not unlike Father McKenzie’s “sermons that no one will hear”). Lately, he has given up even on that. It is unlikely that he has much company for his intellectual interests. His social life involves weekly visits to the sisters for dinner. In another world, he and Mary – who, though not as well educated, is clearly a smart woman – could be suitable companions for one another, but his role as an authority figure in the church and her devotion to the letter of Catholic rules make even the thought of such an alternative impossible.

Against the background of this pervasive loneliness, the points of theological dispute that, however amusingly, occupy much of the play’s time seem petty indeed. The Savannah Disputation, intentionally or unintentionally, raises the question of whether any set of beliefs — however dearly and tenaciously held — that separate people rather than bringing them closer can possibly be worth their costs.

Director’s Note

Disputation — In the Disputation scholastic system of the Middle Ages, disputations (in Latin: disputationes, singular: disputatio) offered a formalized method of debate designed to uncover and establish truths in theology and in sciences. Fixed rules governed the process: they demanded dependence on traditional written authorities and the thorough understanding of each argument on each side. (From Wikipedia).

Savannah Disputation-A disputation that happens to take place in Savannah, circa 2013.

Into the mundane lives of two elderly semi-reclusive sisters, comes a Christian fundamentalist missionary trying to enlist converts, especially Catholics. Rather than just letting things go, one of the sisters creates a confrontation to include her parish priest, who also happens to be a biblical scholar. What ensues is an explosion of repressed doubts in the minds of four people that opens more questions than what they bargained for. All of this is wrapped into a comedic entanglement reminiscent of a “Golden Girls” episode. ENJOY!

Photo Gallery

Prayer Circle: Margaret (Gayle Grimes), Melissa (Lori Brooks), Father Murphy (Mark Yeager) Profession of Faith: Mary (Barbara Wilson), Margaret (Gayle Grimes), Father Murphy (Mark Yeager)
Prayer Circle: Margaret (Gayle Grimes), Melissa (Lori Brooks), Father Murphy (Mark Yeager)
Profession of Faith: Mary (Barbara Wilson), Margaret (Gayle Grimes), Father Murphy (Mark Yeager)

Photos by Reston Community Players


  • Mary: Barbara Wilson
  • Margaret: Gayle Nichols-Grimes
  • Melissa: Lori Brooks
  • Father Murphy: Mark Yeager

Production Staff

  • Co-Producer: Bea Morse
  • Co-Producer: Jerry Morse
  • Director: Bernie Cohen
  • Stage Manager: Don Libretta
  • Set Design: Maggie Modig
  • Costume Design: Charlotte Marson
  • Light Designer: Adam Konowe
  • Master Electrician: Ian Claar
  • Light Board Operator: Ian Claar
  • Sound Designer: Jon Roberts
  • Sound Board Operator: Christopher E. Robin
  • Set Dressing: Mike Smith
  • Set Painting: Maggie Modig, Barbara Swart
  • Properties Acquisition: Mary Jo Ford
  • Hair/Makeup: Sylvia Munoz
  • Set Construction (Master Carpenter): Skip Larson
  • Running Crew Chief: Laura Baughman
  • Running Crew: Christopher E. Robin, Jason Willet, Han I. Tak, Lexie Bulman, Emy K. Magalhaes
  • Fly Crew: Laura Baughman, Rick Schneider
  • Load-In Crew: Skip Larson, Dave Johnson, Rick Schneider, Rich Bird, Sara Birkhead, Laura Baughman, Tim Hinton, Maggie Modig, Jerry Morse, Bea Morse
  • Photography: Bill Schreiner
  • House Management: Daryl Hoffman
  • Publicity: Lori Knickerbocker
  • Showbill Production: Ginger Kohles, Sue Pinkman

Disclaimer: Reston Community Players provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review. RCP also purchased advertising on the ShowBizRadio web site, which did not influence this review.

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has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.

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