Sacred Space: ‘The Christians’ explores heaven and hell on stage

TO THE CHOIR. Emily Donahoe and Andrew Garman in “The Christains”

While some studies have described church attendance as declining in this country, the same cannot be said for attendance at the shrines and temples of the theater, on Broadway and off; and many of the productions that people have flocked to have not shied away from religious themes. Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s mega-hit “The Book of Mormon” opened more than four years ago, won an abundance of awards and still plays to packed houses of theatergoers willing to pay $299 for premium tickets.

Last season, the bizarre farce “Hand to God” told the story of a young man in an Evangelical church whose irremovable hand-puppet, seemingly possessed by the devil, spewed out a constant stream of obscenities and insults. Then, late in the season, Jim Parsons of the hit television series “The Big Bang Theory” performed as a charming but befuddled God in a show called, appropriately, “An Act of God.”

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While the writers of “The Book of Mormon” claimed that they were poking fun at religious faith but ultimately treated it with respect, many critics (including yours truly) disagree. And while “Hand to God” never questioned the beliefs and practices of the congregation, it portrayed some hypocrisy, sexual repression and, ultimately, the idea that the devil-puppet might simply be the voice of the young man’s shadow side. “An Act of God” was more straightforward, portraying God as imperfect, maybe not even real, and certainly not necessary for us to lead good lives or make the world a better place as humanists.

But these are all comedies. Finally, a quite dramatic production recently opened off-Broadway to strong reviews and already has extended its run. The Christians, written by the young playwright Lucas Hnath, is quite serious about the presence of religion in people’s lives today. He has said that prior to writing the play, he “was having a difficult time thinking of other contemporary plays that took on the subject of religion, and specifically Christianity, that did so without satirizing it or prompting us to roll our eyes at ‘those Christians’” (see the examples above). Hnath grew up in an Assembly of God church in Orlando, Fla. His mother was a minister, and he attended Christian elementary and middle schools, helping out with youth ministry and tagging along with his mother to seminary classes, but he does not answer questions about his current religious beliefs and practices.

The set is a brightly lit megachurch sanctuary with a 20-voice choir onstage, and the audience is treated as the congregation in the intimate space of this off-Broadway house, Playwrights Horizons. (The concept of the audience-as-congregation, one might recall, was used quite effectively in the stage version of “Doubt” 11 years ago and in “Mass Appeal” about 20 years before that.)

“The Christians” begins with a sermon by Pastor Paul (Andrew Garman) celebrating, for one thing, the fact that the congregation has paid off all its debts. It then morphs into a story to explain why Pastor Paul no longer believes in the existence of hell (he presents a pretty convincing case).

Everyone in the choir as well as Paul’s wife, Elizabeth (Linda Powell), sitting beside him, maintains a calm silence, but then the associate pastor Joshua (Larry Powell) gets up to express his firm disagreement with that message. Paul and Joshua enter into an impressive debate, primarily offering different interpretations of the scriptural references to hell and vivid descriptions of their own encounters with evil. Neither one budges in his belief, and Joshua leaves the church to form his own congregation. From then on, things descend into Pastor Paul’s personal hell on earth.

As the attendance at his church services takes a steep dive and the chairman of the congregation’s board of directors steps down, there is some question even of how Pastor Paul’s own wife will react to it all. Perhaps the most poignant episode involves a soft-spoken member of the choir, Jenny (Emily Donahoe), a single mother dependent on the church’s financial assistance, who quietly but relentlessly argues with him, even questioning his motives.

An unusual feature in the production is the constant use of stage microphones. which seem altogether fitting in the early scenes of the church service but continue to be used throughout the rest of the play in the conversations outside the church. Hnath has explained that “the prop of the microphones actually gives us a means to make visible the action of speaking or decisions or refusing to say something. We can all see the moment when a character leans into a microphone to speak…. And we can tell the difference between leaning into a microphone to speak versus yanking the microphone from its stand to speak.” Even the decision to use corded or lapel mics is intentional, as the cords—and the conversations—become more tangled as the play goes along.

Another novel feature of this production is the chalkboard in the lobby, which asks audience members to describe what religion they grew up with and how their beliefs may have changed. The theater also encourages them to discuss the show on social media.

Tim Sanford, the artistic director of Playwrights Horizons, maintains in an essay in the play’s program that the drama is not only about religious fundamentalism. He praises the play for showing “the human face of ideology.” He writes: “We live in a world wracked by violence stirred by intractable conflicts between warring belief systems [which] can be organized around religious precepts, political agendas, or...interpretations of morality. But the one common denominator sure to be found at the heart of any of these conflicts is the unslakable self-righteousness of each warring party.”

A week after this show opened, we got to witness the visit of Pope Francis to our shores and listen to his inspiring messages. One word that showed up quite often in his exhortations is dialogue. The members of Pastor Paul’s congregation do not seem capable of such a task. Why can they not focus on the multitude of doctrines which they share rather than the one on which they cannot agree, a teaching that can seem rather marginal in the Christian belief system? One critic also wondered why they are so devoted to the punishment of sinners rather than to trust in God’s mercy.

A production of “The Christians” has just opened in London, and another staging is scheduled for the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. The play, with its small cast and its single setting, seems ideal for regional stages and community theaters around the country. I recommend joining the congregation if this comes to a theater near you.

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