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Nice Queen Tempers flare in “The Savannah Disputation,” but Marylouise Burke stays stubbornly—and hilariously—sweet.
“Upsettable” may or may not be a real word, but it’s an apt adjective for the kind of role Marylouise Burke is often typecast in. In plays ranging from Kimberly Akimbo to the sparkling new religious-themed comedy The Savannah Disputation, the diminutive, button-eyed Burke specializes in sweet, sensitive, often underestimated characters—the sort that more selfish characters tend to treat as a doormat, only to find that the “doormat” has hurt feelings that are worth considering.

In Evan Smith’s new play, about a pair of Catholic spinsters locked in a funny but dramatic tussle over their faith, Burke plays Margaret. It’s Margaret’s sweetness and curiosity that sets the play in motion: Over the objections of her prickly sister Mary (played by Dana Ivey), Margaret invites Melissa, a bleach-blonde missionary (played by Kellie Overbey), into their Savannah home.

“In her own little way, and without malice, she ends up lighting these fires that she has to then run away from,” Burke says of Margaret. “It’s her obstinacy, her stubbornness, that keeps the play happening. She does exactly what is forbidden”—in this case, letting Melissa in the door to explain what she means when she says that Catholics aren’t necessarily Christians who are guaranteed safe passage to heaven.

That’s where the Burkean upsettability comes in: Faced with a theological showdown engineered by her sister, Margaret high-tails it excitedly across the stage at Playwrights Horizons, in one of the funniest get-me-out-of-here exits around.

“She’s happiest, I think, with things are not too complex,” Burke says of Margaret. “If you think of yourself as devout, there’s a lot that you don’t question about your faith; you’re religious, it’s just part of your life. But when suddenly this is examined or questioned, what resources do you call up to deal with that?”

Raised a mainline Protestant, Burke recalls saying creeds “by rote, and you don’t stop and think about what you’re saying.”

The “disputation” of the play’s title refers to a verse-by-verse argument over the Bible and church authority—not your typical theatrical fare, admittedly, but an exchange invested with enough drama and humor to make it compelling on more than simply a theological level.

“I love about the play that it’s funny and smart, and that you have to listen,” Burke says. “My sense is that the audience really does listen. They like having both sides of the argument, and by the time it comes, they know the four of us and willing to hear us out—to see how we respond.”

Burke gets to a do a little listening herself.

“Toward the end of the play, there’s a long section where I’m mainly listening, where I’m not an active player, and it’s been interesting to explore what I’m perceiving there,” Burke says. “You know, I do like the missionary girl. I have bonded with her a little, and she has scared me by saying that Catholics don’t get to heaven. She has rocked my world, sort of.” Burke feels so wrapped up in the changing fortunes of the debate, she says, “It blows my mind every night.”

Other Burke roles include Jack’s Mother in the Broadway revival of Into the Woods and another sweet matron in Adam Rapp’s Off-Broadway play American Sligo. Asked if she ever tires of being cast as rather saintly, slightly nervous, overly solicitous easily worried women, Burke is quick to point out that in on-screen roles she’s played her share of unrepentant baddies.

“I did this indie movie called Series 7, a satire on reality TV shows,” Burke recalls with relish. “I played a Catholic nurse who’s one of the competitors, and every day I went to the set I had to learn to shoot a different gun! In one scene, I killed someone with an injection.” More recently, she says, “I did an episode of Fringe where I played the vilest mother—she was just oppressive and nasty. She had her son living with her at home, and in one scene, her pacemaker fails, so I got to gasp and die.”

As fun as such roles can be, she admits that there’s a certain against-type aspect to these parts.

“When I went into the makeup room on Fringe in the morning, the lady actually said to me, ‘I’m really surprised that you got cast in this role,’ ” Burke says. “People don’t see it, but I can be bad, too.”

Her most recent film credit put her somewhere in the middle: as a venal character in a Catholic drama. In a few wordless scenes in John Patrick Shanley's film of his hit play Doubt, Burke appears as Mrs. Deakins, the subject of Father Flynn’s sermon about gossip. She’s the one tearing up pillows on the roof of her tenement building, and watching the feathers swirl.

“That character started out having three little scenes, but with each draft, the lines got lost,” Burke says. “By the time we shot it, they asked me if I still wanted to do it, and I said yes. I thought it would be an iconic image.”

Marylouise Burke can’t hide it: There’s a very good reason she’s the go-to actor for "nice."

Click here for more information about The Savannah Disputation.