SAN DIEGO — The subject may be heaven, but keep your eyes on the ground when you walk into Evan Smith's "The Savannah Disputation," an Old Globe production playing in the round at the San Diego Museum of Art's Copley Auditorium. Designer Deb O's set -- a cozy Southern house -- is perched on hundreds of books. And while the Good Book is at the core of this promising little comedy, the play gets very lost on the way to spiritual clarity.
Tart Southern Catholic spinster Mary (Nancy Robinette) and her sister, timid Margaret (Mikel Sarah Lambert), receive a visit from perky evangelical Melissa (Kimberly Parker Green), who wants to know if they've been saved -- from the pope.
The insistent Melissa finds a crack in Margaret's religious armor and plans to win her as a convert. An outraged Mary calls in reinforcements in the form of parish priest Father Murphy (James Sutorius), setting the stage for a Scripture smackdown. As Mary puts it, "We want you to crush her."
So far, so funny, a kind of "Driving Miss Daisy" meets "Doubt." Smith can effortlessly craft a laugh and likable characters, and the audience wants to watch how these women navigate the mystery of belief. Pretty soon Melissa is waving pamphlets about Catholic cannibalism while Mary wonders aloud how the young woman will get into heaven wearing four-inch heels.
But this strong setup quickly dissipates as the playwright keeps changing focus. Is "Disputation" about two older women contemplating their death? (Numerous phone messages from a doctor's office suggest that for at least one of them, the issue of resurrection of the body is most relevant.) Is this the story of a power shift between a dominant and submissive sibling? The need to believe in something regardless of its logic? Is Smith just arguing that religion ruins people's sex lives?
Even the first few scenes, where characters move on and off stage in awkward ways, signals that Smith and director Kim Rubinstein are still searching for the shape of the play.
The pleasures here are moment to moment. Robinette, part battleship, part adder, drives the play, and her withering Mary -- way too capable for the life she's chosen -- is wicked fun. Lambert manages to give the diffident Margaret an appealing honesty; she just wants something to hold onto. Green finds Melissa's desperation under the chipper facade, and Sutorius explicates biblical arcana with fluency. But none of them can quite make sense of Smith's text, which strands them in theatrical purgatory.
'The Savannah Disputation'
Where: James S. Copley Auditorium, the San Diego Museum of Art, 1363 Old Globe Way, San Diego
Contact: (619) 234-5623 or www.oldglobe.org