Pastor Paul’s church looks and feels like a place for comfortable certainties. This congregation — the setting for Lucas Hnath’s new play The Christians — started in a storefront. Now, with members numbering in the thousands, it occupies a slick new just-paid-for sanctuary. The wood-paneled, quasi-corporate hall boasts a coffee bar, bright blue carpeting, and a sleek glass pulpit. Video monitors show doves, flowers, and celestial clouds. Paul (Andrew Garman) even jokes during his sermon that the baptismal’s “as big as a swimming pool.”
But on this particular Sunday, things go off the rails. Paul (quoting Isaiah) informs his flock that “there is a crack in the foundation of this church.” The Christians steadily elaborates on that rift, a theological schism between pastors with consequences for these righteous characters struggling to do the right thing. In his sermon, Paul declares that “we are no longer that kind of church” where “my way is the only way.” Signaling a shift in doctrine, the minister announces that he doesn’t believe good people not in the faith go to Hell; his doubt on that point causes him to further wonder if otherwise valorous souls can be condemned. Finally, he wonders if Hell exists. (The playwright never specifies the denomination but hints they practice a fundamentalist Protestantism.)
Hnath’s play is engaging but sometimes ponderous. He shows how one gradation of doubt can unravel a whole belief system and how material motivations intersect with spiritual ones. Why did Paul wait until the day the new church was paid off to change his stance on something as major as Heaven and Hell? Why is associate pastor Joshua (Larry Powell) so quick to refute him and divide the members? The play’s deliberations are surprisingly genteel: I wondered if it would rupture, like a contemporary German play, exploding all the repressed emotions into violence. But no great rupture or bold reversal comes; Hnath probes these questions politely.
Director Les Waters calibrates this delicate scheme with a deft hand. We sit as spectators but watch as if we’re in the hall deciding what and whom to believe. The production wisely avoids histrionics; introducing any would collapse the play’s intricacies. In this pared-down staging, Hnath’s play takes on formal trappings of Greek tragedy: The choir occupies center stage and watches much of the proceedings, sometimes rising to sing hymns in response. (“I wish somebody’s soul would catch on fire.”) When a singer (Emily Donahoe) steps forward to address the minister ritualistically during this crisis, she could almost be a solemn chorus leader in Sophocles. Even ostensibly intimate conversations between two people take place with both holding microphones; what’s private becomes public, and the other way around.
Garman gives a sharp performance. He begins with the confident, chuckling righteousness of a preacher moralizing for his followers. By the late scenes, when his wife, Elizabeth (Linda Powell), questions her loyalty to him and his teachings, he transforms. His stoic face seems wearied and we catch a glimpse of his vulnerability. Standing up for what he believes, he must face the possibility of losing everything. Watching one man’s insistent righteousness affect an entire town, we wonder just who the admirable ones are in this scenario, and how to locate ourselves in the moral maze.
By Lucas Hnath
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