Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Review: The Savannah Disputation

Apologetics Without Apologies
By Lauren Yarger
Good and evil lock horns in battle for immortal souls in The Savannah Disputation, running at Playwrights Horizons in New York, but who sports the horns of the lamb and who has the horns of Satan? Well, that’s what the battle is all about.

Melissa (Kellie Overbey), a Christian missionary thinks she has all of the answers and sets out on her quest to “convert” Catholics. She arrives on the doorstep of elderly Savannah, GA sisters Mary (Dana Ivey) and Margaret (Marylouise Burke) and the battle begins. Margaret, as sweet and simple as they come, invites Melissa in and reads some of her pamphlets raising questions about whether the Catholic Church is the one true church.

“Your whole church is founded on a grammatical error,” Melissa says, citing original Latin text from the bible and Margaret starts to question her faith. Mean and feisty Mary wants no part of Melissa and her teachings and throws her out making Melissa question her calling as a missionary. When Margaret defies her sister’s command not to see the evangelist again, Mary concocts her own plan. She invites her unsuspecting priest, Father Murphy (Reed Birney), over for dinner on the same night Margaret invites Melissa back for another talk.

Mary fills the priest in on her plan minutes before Melissa arrives. “We want you to crush her,” she says with glee.

Uncomfortable with Mary's manipulation, he keeps quiet while Melissa begins her anti-Catholic instruction, but soon Murphy’s identity is revealed and he and Melissa engage in a spirited battle of apologetics. Before the evening is over, Mary seeks excommunication from the church and starts tossing statues and other religious relics in the trash while Margaret, who riotously flees the room at each warning shot of battle, can’t find anyone who can answer her questions.

Evan Smith’s play is full of humor and allows the debate to rage without anyone seeming preachy. Weapons of information fly from both sides as each makes a case for having the only straight shot to heaven. The characters are interesting and real without becoming caricatures of what they represent. Mary is both ornery and vulnerable; Margaret is naïve, yet unwavering; Melissa is abrupt, but caring and Murphy is tolerant, yet convicted. And in a nice turn, Mary keeps deleting phone messages from her doctor’s office reminding her that her test results are back. The possibility of a life-threatening illness gives the debate about the need for eternal salvation increased meaning.

The performances, under the direction of Walter Bobbie, are top notch. Ivey is irrepressible as the mean-spirited Mary who tangles with nuns and doesn’t care if she offends anyone because, as she reminds us, she doesn’t have any friends any way. Burke is thoroughly engaging as the sweet and humble Margaret who brings to mind a favorite aunt, school teacher or someone else whose kindness has touched you. Her questions, it turns out, don’t really stem from disbelief, but from concern about whether Mary will end up in heaven or not. Overbey and Birney hold their own against and fuel the performances of the powerhouse spinsters.

It’s a near heavenly production, enhanced by the technical elements (scenic design John Lee Beatty; costumes David C. Woolard; lighting Kenneth Possner and sound, Tony Meola). The apologetics are without apology and are the impetus for greater understanding of why you believe what you believe.

Christians might also like to know:• Good information on tenets of the Catholic faith and on original bible texts

The Savannah Disputation runs through March 15. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 8pm; Saturdays at 2:30 and 8pm; Sundays at 2:30 and 7:30 pm. Tickets may be purchased by calling 212- 279-4200, online at or at the box office, 416 W. 42nd St. (between 9th and 10th Avenues).

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists. Her play concept, "From Reel to Real: The Jennifer O'Neill Story" was presented as part of the League of professional Theatre Women's Julia's reading Room Series in New York in February 2018.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Intensive and other training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (, an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for She previously served as theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer, Connecticut theater editor for and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

She is a Co-Founder of the Connecticut Chapter of the League of Professional Theatre Women. She is a former vice preseint and voting member of The Drama Desk.

She is a freelance writer and playwright (member Dramatists Guild of America). She is a member if the The Outer Critics Circle (event manager for the annual awards ceremony), The American Theater Critics Association, The League of Professional Theatre Women and the Drama League. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She also is a member of the Episcopal Actors' Guild, the NY Public Library for the Performing Arts and The O'Neill Theatre Center..

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.


All material is copyright 2008- 2018 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact


Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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