A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
The promotional copy for The Christians by Lucas Hnath describes it as being about a sermon by the head of a non-denominational mega church that's about to shake the foundation of the congregation's belief system. If that has you anticipating a satire about these big churches and religions based on intense evangelism, you're in for a surprise. The Christians is neither a gently amusing or more polemically incisive comedy, but a serious play that looks at the question of religious conformity — in this case, whether a hugely successful church can survive its pastor's breaking away from their deep-rooted belief that only those committed to Christ can hope to escape hell.
That's not to say that you should expect to leave the theater with your own beliefs about heaven and hell changed. But neither will you be bored during the 95 minutes spent with Pastor Paul (Andrew Garman), his wife Elizabeth (Linda Powell), Pastor Joshua (Larry Powell —no relation to Linda), church elder Jay (Philip Kerr)and choir member Jenny (Emily Donahoe).
Lucas Hnath is a fine writer. He knows how to populate his plays with people rather than characters created as mouthpieces for his issues. In fact, The Christians wasn't written to air Hnath's religious opnions and beliefs. Though he grew up in an Evangelical environment, this play is not about whether he remains an observant Christian, and whether an evangelical one (I rather doubt it). His aim is to tell an involving, thought provoking story that happens to revolve around the painfully divisive fallout from a decision by a church pastor to take his large congregation into a new, broader direction.
Though hardly without fault lines, Mr. Hnath has managed to create a compelling drama from a setting and situation that not only sounds preachy, but relies on a sermon to get going. And director Les Waters has guided the excellent cast to believably express their characters' certainties and uncertainties in a natural, often pause-filled style, though, typical of these big churches, all use micophones even in one-on-one conversations.
As expected with any Playwrights Horizon production, the design work is state-of-the art, especially Dane Laffrey's state-of-the-art mega church sanctuary. The play opens with several songs delivered by a chorus (twenty different singers are assembled for each performance which accounts for the absence of specific credits in the program). After the hand clapping last song is delivered, it's on to the sermon by Pastor Paul (the aptly named and charismatic Mr. Garman). The four part sermon begins on a happy note, with the Pastor recapping the church's growth from a tiny store front to its present grand home which happens to be debt free on this day. Pastor Paul thought this milestone ideal for presenting his bombshell plan for moving forward in a challenging new direction; but others will understandably view the timing as opportunistic, a case of waiting until the church is safely financed.
The bombshell comes with the part of the sermon in which our contemporary Paul relates his version of the biblical Apostle's divine revelation on the road to Damascus. Our Paul's new thinking about heaven and hell came at a conference where a missionary from Africa recounted a young boy's heroically sacrificing his life to save his sister. He ended his horrendous description of the boy's death by expressing his sadness that, despite his noble act, this boy was doomed to hell because he was not a Christian. While the other pastors agreed with the missionary's conclusion about the boy's exclusion from heaven, it left Pastor Paul deeply troubled. After much contemplation he decided to reject the missionary's conclusion about that heroic boy's fate and is now proposing that his followers abandon the iron fast rule about accepting Jesus as the only entry into heaven. As he puts it, "we are no longer a congregation that believes in Hell" and that insists that "my way is the only way."
Paul's charisma goes just so far, however. This is a monumental change, an assault on the very essence of the evangelical fundamentalism that has helped the church to grow and prosper. Associate pastor Joshua, who's always been more aggressive than Paul in converting non-believers, is the first and fiercest objector to this radical turnaround. But he's out-voted and leaves, taking a number of congregants with him.
Elder Jay (the deceptively genial Philip Kerr) and the rest of the board endorse Paul's rather fuzzy modern theology. This is more than a little hard to believe, but a scene between Elder Jay and Paul does shed a light on these churches as big businesses faced with necessary compromises. Though still praising Paul's new course, Elder Jay as the board's spokesman expresses his alarm over the continued departure of church members comfortable only with Pastor Joshua's fire and brimstone style of worship. They see inviting Joshua to return as the only way to prevent disaster.
Though it seems as if Linda Powell's Elizabeth will never speak, it's hardly surprising from her body language that she's not going to be okay with her husband's decision. She loves Paul but she also needs heaven and hell to support her belief that they will be together through eternity.
It's easy to see why the playwright felt that his play needed that marital rift to intensify the tragic consequences of such deep-seated differences. However, the most potent interchange is not between husband a wife, but between Paul and a plain-spoken church and choir member named Jenny. She takes the microphone to explain why she feels betrayed and bewildered by a Pastor who now tells her that heaven would now find a place even for Hitler or someone who murdered her child. The Pastor's obvious struggle to deal with this challenge is the play's dramatic high spot. It also poses a question about responsible leadership. Surely, a wiser, more psychologically aware pastor would have realized that he needed the help of a trained psychotherapist to help him prepare his flock for what he was proposing.
While Curtainup has reviewed two previous plays by Lucas HNath ( Isaac's Eye and Red Speedo ), this is my first encounter with his work. I look forward to seeing more.