Monday, 28 September 2015

THE CHRISTIANS by Lucas Hnath at Playwrights Horizons

     I doubt if religion is a key force in the lives of the sort of folk who regularly attend Playwrights Horizons. The somewhat uncomfortable titters that erupted from some audience members during the performance suggested that for many in the audience a play about evangelical Christians must be a comedy. Nobody could really believe that stuff, right? Kim Davis, the country clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses because of her evangelical faith must be a hypocrite or worse, right? To understand and appreciate THE CHRISTIANS, Lucas Hnath's brilliant, thought-provoking play, you must accept that such faith is literally a life and death matter for many people.
     THE CHRISTIANS begins at a celebratory service in a megachurch (location unspecified). Under Reverend Paul (Andrew Garman), its charismatic preacher, the church began in a storefront, then grew exponentially until now it is in its own massive building complete with escalators, gift shop and coffee shop and a congregation in the thousands. The play begins with a sermon in which Reverend Paul first announces that the church has just paid off its debt. He then goes on to tell his flock that God has spoken to him and he no longer believes in hell. God loves all his creation, believers and non-believers alike. The play then offers a series of confrontations as the church Reverend Paul slowly created is quickly destroyed. First, a horrified Joshua (Larry Powell), the Associate Pastor, announces that he cannot support Paul's new revelation. Joshua goes off and begins his own church. A member of the Board of Trustees is concerned about the economic fallout from Paul's sermon and the loss of Joshua. In the most powerful scene in the play, a poor single mother who feels she has been saved spiritually and materially by the church asks a series of increasingly difficult questions of Paul. If there's no hell, why be good? Would Hitler be in heaven? Finally, did Paul wait until the church's debt was paid off before voicing his new belief in universal salvation? During this exchange, Paul becomes less and less articulate. Paul's wife so disagrees with his new faith that she must either leave him or contradict his teachings within the walls of the church. Finally Joshua explains to Paul why he so fervently believes in hell. Paul is left quietly, almost inaudibly, whispering his doubts, "How do I know God is speaking to me?" Isn't God also speaking to the folks who so ardently disagree with him?
     THE CHRISTIANS raises a number of questions about religion. Can God really be speaking to so many people in so many different, contradictory ways? Why is Hell so important to so many people? Paul points out that it really isn't in the Bible, but that doesn't matter. Believers must believe in the horrible punishment that awaits them if they don't accept Christ. What is the responsibility of a pastor? Can a leader really force beliefs on a congregations. Paul makes the foolish mistake of believing one sermon can change everyone's minds and hearts. Essentially the losing battle that is waged is one that was argued in the American church in the 19th century between mainstream protestants and universalists. As a proud member of the Unitarian Universalist faith, I could say to myself that Paul is moving in my direction. Historically it's not an intellectual or spiritual path many Christians have wanted to take.
     The cast of THE CHRISTIANS couldn't be better. Andrew Garmon manages to capture many of the traits that many ministers I have experienced share. He loves to respond to contradiction with "I hear you," but he never understands that the other side is equally passionate. We're talking about faith, after all. There's a tyrannical side under the nice guy exterior. Faith, after all, is absolute for the believer. Yet even people of faith have dark moments of doubt. By the end, Paul is experiencing such a moment. Larry Powell expresses Joshua's shock, deep hurt and essential kindness even though his faith is quite scary. Emily Donahoe is moving in her initial tentativeness in confronting Paul, but in the power of her confusion and sense of betrayal.
     The play is staged as if it were all part of a worship service, complete with choir and organ. Les Waters has created a rich, deeply sincere and moving production. Dane Laffrey's set is convincing.
I don't know how folks who aren't interested in religion will take this production. I am always wrestling with questions of faith, so the play was manna to me. Whatever one thinks or believes, Lucas Hnath is real deal, a masterful playwright who creates rich characters and beautiful, theatrically exciting language. I'm going to be reading his other works in the coming week.
     I want to add that I'm delighted that Playwrights Horizons have moved from using Playbill to creating its own program with much better program notes. More non-profits should follow in their footsteps.

THE CHRISTIANS. Playwrights Horizons. September 28, 2015.

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