Dominating the backdrop of the set of The Christians is an enormous, backlit wooden cross, next to which is a wall molded to resemble three more towering, overlapping crosses. The overlapping is key because those three crosses can look like just crosses, or they can look like a white picket fence — or perhaps even the bars of a jail cell. All three interpretations are subtly brought to bear in Lucas Hnath’s timely, thoughtful and insightful play, which pits believer against believer in a theological debate about the nature of hell and of modern Christianity itself.
After an opening number is sung by the sizable choir (a nice touch that makes the show feel like an actual Sunday service), Pastor Paul (a sensitive, earnest Andrew Garman) begins the play with his sermon. Initially, it seems like typical ecclesiastical fare, but when Paul discusses “the Fires of Hell,” he segues into a story he has heard at a pastors conference about a boy in “a country where there’s a lot of fighting.” This boy ran into a burning grocery store to save his sister and afterward died from his wounds, but because he wasn’t a Christian, he went to hell — or so the missionary who told the story claimed. Paul, who has an epiphany after hearing it, wishes to change his congregation’s understanding of salvation and condemnation. “What good is a good church if all it does is make everyone feel so bad?” he asks at one point.
However, his associate pastor, Joshua (played with righteous indignation by Larry Powell), questions Paul’s desire to fundamentally alter the congregation’s conception of its faith. The debate between the two leads to a schism, with Joshua leaving the church and taking only a small segment of the flock with him. Over time, the church begins to lose more membership, leading Paul to lock horns with elder Jay (Philip Kerr) from the church’s board, choir member Jenny (Emily Donahoe, who beautifully combines humility and fear), and even his wife, Elizabeth (Linda Powell). They all question Paul’s more open and progressive vision for the church, as well as the timing of his shift, which coincides neatly with the church’s debts having finally been paid off. Yet none of the characters is demonized or judged by Hnath, whose writing brings real depth and nuance to the debate. Jenny's plea for clarity is particularly plaintive, creating one of the piece's more moving moments.
Director Les Waters (also the artistic director of the Actors Theatre of Louisville, where the play originated in 2014) guides the action with a sensitivity that turns weighty theological debates into intimate, authentic conversations. This is not an easy feat, given the spectacle of a megachurch setting and the fact that the characters speak into microphones throughout. The use of microphones does feel authentic to the milieu, but it has the unintended consequence of the distraction/comedy, which results as characters constantly avoid entangling themselves in the cords.
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The design of Dane Laffrey’s aforementioned set, carpeted in royal blue, framed by Scandinavian wood and punctuated by potted poinsettias, seamlessly draws the audience into the space, while Philip Allgeier’s video designs provide apropos images of “God rays” shining through clouds, as well as other nature-inspired, motivational office-poster imagery. If one looks hard enough, each of the stained-glass style, vertical panels that frames the two large video screens forms a letter H, perhaps placing the debate onstage in between them as one between heaven and hell? Or perhaps that’s reading too much meaning into religious symbolism.
GO! Mark Taper Forum at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown; through Jan. 10. (213) 628-2772, centertheatregroup.org.