The Christians, onstage now at Playmakers Repertory Company, under the direction of the esteemed Preston Lane, is an interesting dramatic play that will cause viewers to think about tough religious issues. These are the kinds of things, of course, that no one wants to think about, but on which everyone should. The show opens upon a gorgeous church set- amazingly true to life with its gleaming wooden floor, cross-bearing seats, and a perfect pulpit. Viewers will instantly feel as though they have been transported to church, especially when the pastor (Joey Collins) starts speaking.
The sermon delivered by this pastor is certainly not of your normal “fire and brimstone” variety. For, after he announces that the church- complete with a coffee shop and bookstore a la Joel Osteen- has finally paid its debts and is owned outright, he delivers a startling message: he no longer believes in hell, and he feels that his congregation shouldn’t either.
As his congregation sits idly on, not yet ready to express feelings on the topic, one man, Brother Joshua (Alex Givens) speaks up. He expresses concern over the “heretical” teachings of the pastor and even asks for a vote to be cast determining which speaker has the most followers. Givens gives his impassioned speech an earnest, fundamentalist bent that is incredibly believable, a position he maintains throughout the entire show.
Associate Pastor Joshua (Givens) speaks with Pastor Paul (Joey Collins) while Elizabeth (Nemuna Ceesay) looks on. Photo by HuthPhoto.
While, initially, most congregants side with the Pastor, what follows is an upheaval among the congregants that brings to light many important themes of the play. Here, viewers are asked to question the idea of church as a business. They are asked to examine how participants get something from their church-going, something pre-prescribed and comfortable, and how, when that “something” is taken away or altered, they revolt, much like people might distress over a new update to Windows that they don’t find easily accessible.
The oh-so-common punishment and reward system present in many modern churches is beautifully and thoroughly examined throughout Lucas Hnath’s deftly-dense script, particularly during the pastor’s tense interactions with Jenny (Christine Mirzayan), a congregant who, in her eyes, has profited much from the church but now has concerns about it and its new teachings.
This and other terse interactions in the performance play out beautifully, thanks in large part to Lane’s gorgeous and subtle direction. Never has one used three chairs, three backs to the audience, to communicate so much and so profoundly.
These chairs, under Lane’s direction, go from representing the nameless patrons of the church to representing the pastor and his wife (Nemuna Ceesay) effortlessly as they sit in the confines of their marital bed, speaking tough words to one another.
While Collins, throughout, plays his role with an innocence and vulnerability that makes the character utterly relatable, some of the strongest and most subtle acting comes from Ceesay who, though she has few lines to give, delivers each with incredible strength and clarity- no easy feat with this tough dialogue. Lane also makes that smart and powerful directorial choice to silence her character’s voice, both literally and stage-wise, throughout the first half of the production, making it all the more powerful when the character does speak and smartly underlining some of the faults in the pastor’s choices.
Overall, Hnath’s script is smart and intricate, obviously created by someone with religious scars of his own. He has even (jab-jab) named his pastor character Paul, a biblical allusion of sorts to the scriptural character of the same name who makes an all-important discovery and has “scales cast from his eyes,” changing his whole life in the process.
And, while this beautifully-done production may start like any sleepy Sunday at church, it turns out to be anything but. What follows in this brief play (mercifully performed with no intermission so as not to disturb its beauty) is nothing more than an exploration of all of the tough questions people don’t want to ask but desperately need to about their own religion.
Far from anti-faith- in fact, some may even call it faith-affirming in its own right- this production is brave, fearless, and incredibly powerful. Don’t miss it.
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