Heaven help us.
When it comes to religion, can anybody be completely right? Can anybody be completely wrong?
"The Savannah Disputation" by playwright Evan Smith tackles this sticky subject with side-splitting comedy. The Savannah Community Theatre will present the play Jan. 10-19 at the Muse Arts Warehouse.
Director Tom Coleman III says "The Savannah Disputation" may be the funniest play the company has done. He is being assisted by stage manager Quayla Halmon and Vera Simonaitis, who is doing the costumes.
The fun begins when a young and ardent Jehovah's Witness named Melissa (played by Jamie Grafton) knocks on the door of two Roman Catholic sisters, Mary O'Brien (Anna Burrell) and her sister, Margaret (Carmel Garvin Hearn).
When Melissa asks Mary if she's been saved, she sets off a religious argument that escalates until it includes the parish priest, Father Murphy, played by Jeffrey Hall. Critics have compared the ensuing fun to a special theological episode of "The Golden Girls."
Born and raised in Savannah, Smith's plays have been produced by Playwrights Horizons in New York City. One, "The Uneasy Chair," was revived by the Writer's Theatre in Chicago and also by 1812 Productions in Philadelphia, which produced the world premiere of his play "Daughters of Genius."
"The Savannah Disputation" had its world premiere at the Writers' Theatre in 2007. It also was produced at Playwrights Horizons and in numerous regional theaters.
Coleman first saw "The Savannah Disputation" in New York. "I thought it would be a church-bashing show and I was expecting it," he says.
"But I was incredibly pleased with what the play is about. I thought it was making fun of Jehovah's Witnesses, but as it progressed, no one was safe. Evan is an equal-opportunity playwright."
The moral of the play is actually quite moving, Coleman says.
"It beautifully says there are 245,000 religions and all have their own beliefs, and it doesn't say, 'You're right and you're wrong,'" he says.
"One character comes in and says, 'If you don't believe the Bible word for word, you're going to hell, and says it to these two Catholic ladies. One starts to believe she's going to hell while the other one says, 'Just because she said it doesn't make it so.'"
Mary decides to invite Melissa to dinner, and also asks Father Murphy. Her plan is to have him back her up.
"That's where the disputation comes in," Coleman says.
But to Mary's surprise, Father Murphy refuses to do so.
"He says, 'She's not wrong.'" Coleman says. "This is a woman who is 100 percent my grandmother.
"She went to Blessed Sacrament, took care of the linens, the holy cards, and was best friends with all the priests. That's Evan's grandmother, also.
"In the play, Mary is a firm Catholic and she believes Catholics are right because that is what she's been taught since she was 1 year old," Coleman says.
"From age 5 1/2, we memorize catechism and learn all the prayers and go to Mass every week and say these prayers."
But Catholics aren't taught they're right, just that Catholicism is the one true church, Coleman says.
"The point Evan is making is that you say the prayers, but do you know what they mean?" he asks. "Of course we don't."
Melissa gives Mary a pamphlet that shows a man rising from his grave.
"Mary says, 'That's the silliest thing I've ever heard of,'" Coleman says.
"She says, 'When I die, I'm not climbing out of the dirt. When I die, I'm going to heaven!' Then the sisters start reciting the creed really fast - until they come to the line, 'I believe in resurrection of the body.'
"Where I love the play is a really nice sort of speech the priest does with Mary," Coleman says. "If you are a person of faith, you have faith. There are a lot of things you don't understand, but the bottom line is tolerance for each other."
People should be treated as people, no matter their religious beliefs.
"You don't give up on them," Coleman says. "Evan made me feel really good. The trick is how do you do it.
"It is a very funny play but every line in the script can be read angrily," he says. "But if you read it angrily, it's going to be a drama and the deal is these people have a sense of humor."
In fact, Mary is funny and knows she's funny.
"The things she says should not be said to people, but she thinks if she says it funny, it's not offensive," Coleman says. "This is a Bea Arthur character, the Bea Arthur character in 'The Golden Girls.'"
Coleman first encountered Smith when he taught him in a children's theater class.
"He has a very acerbic sense of humor and is very, very intelligent," Coleman says. "Evan started writing for the One Act Play Festival in Savannah and entered several times. He found he's creative.
"Evan has written quite a few plays and I particularly like this one," Coleman says. "He's being produced everywhere and is a very successful playwright."
"The Savannah Disputation" is set at a fictitious address in Ardsley Park.
"The set is a living room/dining room combination," Coleman says.
As the director, Coleman worries that potential audience members might be turned off by the play's religious aspect.
"Mostly the challenge is trying to get everybody to know what the characters are and what they're pulling for," he says. "Characterization has been the hardest thing. These are real people."
Hearn, who plays Margaret, says the play does have some poignant moments.
"But there are a lot of laughs in this show," she says.
"It's laughs where things you've thought about but never articulated are said," Hearn says. "Poor Margaret. She's very sweet and gullible and a nice person.
"She lives with her sister, Mary, who is pretty direct. Mary has strong opinions about things."
The play has more than one message, Hearn says.
"I have two takeaways from this show that really hit home with me," she says. "One is it's important for all of us to realize what we do believe about our faith and to really understand what is our faith. The other thing is, 'Judge not, lest ye be judged.'
"These are very interesting threads pulled throughout the show," she says. "They speak to me and say it's important to keep these things in mind. It's all done in a very humorous, tolerant delivery."
Although she grew up three blocks away from Blessed Sacrament, Hearn is a Protestant.
"But I had a lot of friends who went to school there," she says. "As it turns out, my mother has been organist there for 35 years. I'm very familiar with the church and communicants who go to Blessed Sacrament."
Hearn has done community theater in Savannah and Atlanta. She currently works for Old Savannah Tours and has an independent marketing firm.
After living in Atlanta for 15 years, Hearn moved back recently.
"It works out really great," she says. "My mom is here. My daughter lives here. My husband, Phil, is still in Atlanta, so I go back and forth a lot."
Hearn was living in Atlanta three years ago when she and others accompanied Coleman to see the play.
"I had no earthly idea what to expect," Hearn says. "After watching it, I said, 'This is incredible.'"
It was obvious Coleman was thinking about doing the show in Savannah.
"I was absolutely thrilled when he decided to do the show and cast me in this role," she says.
"If you would like to ring in the new year with some laughter, see a show that pokes you in all funny places yet touches the heart at the same time, you need to come see this show," she says. "You will see people you recognize. You will laugh with us, you will cry with us and you will leave the theater feeling you've experienced something that touched your heart."