Religion is a powerful word that universally evokes strong feelings and emotions in both believers and non-believers. Its dogma has been the basis of countless wars, but for many it’s a source of solace and strength. Portland Stage closes out its 40th anniversary season with a production that comically confronts the fundamental beliefs of Catholicism and Protestantism.

“The Savannah Disputation” is literally a comedy of biblical errors. What if the schism between religions resulted largely in part from centuries of text inconsistencies, scribe inaccuracies and language differences? Through the play’s four characters, playwright Evan Smith boldly poses this notion, offering the audience an appetizing blend of controversial food for thought and entertaining comic fodder.

An evangelical Protestant (Courtney Moors) walks into a room with a Catholic priest (Charlie Kevin), a Catholic spinster (Maureen Butler) and the spinster’s opinionated Catholic sister (Cristine McMurdo-Wallis).

As the title suggests, the play is set in Smith’s hometown, Savannah, Georgia. And, anyone who has ever lived in, or visited, the South knows how impassioned Southerners can be about religion. Smith uses this to add comic zest to his witty disputation.

The play is filled with playful jabs (“Are you an impostor, an Episcopalian?”) to feed the audience’s laughter and sweetened with double-edged cultural references.

“Father McKenzie is in ‘Eleanor Rigby,’ darning socks,” Kevin’s Father Murphy tells Moors’ Melissa when she gets his last name wrong, cleverly invoking the dual meaning of spinster.

Portland Stage’s cast delivers the smart dialogue with ease. Both Butler (Margaret) and McMurdo-Wallis (Mary) have an acting style that is natural and perfectly timed, with priceless looks that could kill. And Kevin and Moors are delightful devil’s advocates.

Under the laughs, “The Savannah Disputation” touches on issues, both secular and non-secular, that strike an emotional chord.

“Ever wonder if your friends just pretend to like you?” Father Murphy asks Mary and Margaret.

Father Murphy is definitely not alone in his query. Regardless of religion, most us have mentally pondered this question, particularly in regard to friends acquired through work.

All four characters struggle with feelings of isolation and self-doubt. Mary has the added worry of pending medical test results. When her lifelong beliefs are challenged, her world is turned upside down. The audience feels and identifies with Mary’s apprehension and uncertainty. After all, we all need something to believe in, particularly when times are rough.

Many of the topics in “The Savannah Disputation” are sources of heated controversy among the devoutly religious and biblical scholars. The chair of St. Peter, purgatory, buying your way out of hell, and heaven here on Earth are just a few of the topics posed throughout the play.

“The Savannah Disputation” is bound to leave some hot under the collar, but for the rest, it’s one “hell” of a fun debate. There isn’t a clearcut winner between the religions, just stimulating questions to stir the brain and a hearty dose of wit to lift the spirits. It’s a win-win, no matter what your denomination.

April Boyle is a freelance writer from Casco. She can be contacted at:

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