The ring tone that breaks out periodically from the missionary's cell phone says a lot: The theme from "Mission: Impossible." But this bubbly blond evangelical named Melissa is nothing if not determined, and her targets — two sisters sharing a home and a lifelong commitment to Catholicism — present an irresistible challenge.
Such is the premise of Evan Smith's smart, snappy comedy, "The Savannah Disputation," receiving its area premiere in a finely nuanced production from the Olney Theatre Center. The playwright treats the tricky subject without slipping into condescension or ridicule, and, while landing a lot of great one-liners along the way, pretty much avoids sitcom silliness or heavy-handedness, too.
Directed with a sure hand by John Going and nicely framed by James Wolk's evocative set, the cast achieves a note-perfect tone. Brigid Cleary gives a rich performance as Mary, the bossy sibling, subtly revealing traces of warmth beneath the character's brittle exterior in between funny bursts of defiance.
Sweet, timid Margaret, who not only lets Melissa into the house, but politely listens to the missionary's increasingly pointed jabs at her religion, is endearingly portrayed by Michele Tauber. She gets some of the biggest laughs from the simplest of utterances.
Beth Hylton conveys Melissa's chipper determination and inner tentativeness to telling effect. As Father Murphy, the sisters' British TV comedy-loving friend thrust into defender-of-the-faith duty, Jeff Allin is occasionally tentative, but brings an affecting naturalness to the role.
Whatever your own religious leaning, you're likely to become a believer in "The Savannah Disputation's" uncanny ability to navigate treacherous waters in entertaining, provocative fashion.
Performances continue through Aug. 22 at the OIney Theatre Center. Call 301-924-3400 or go to olneytheatre.org.
— Tim Smith