“The Christians” blurs the lines between church and theater, that much is for sure. When the pastor in this thoughtful StageWorks Fresno production implores the faithful in his “sanctuary” – aka the Fresno Art Museum’s Bonner Auditorium – to pray, I found myself dipping my head out of pure reflex. And when I popped it up again immediately, I felt a little guilty, like I was a kid once again sitting in the front pew and “cheating” by glancing around during my moments of ritual supplication.
Director J. Daniel Herring, working with a compelling yet sometimes irksome script by Lucas Hnath, helps the audience feel as if it is, indeed, ensconced in the comfortable embrace of a sanctuary, with the service kicking off with a robed choir marching down the aisles. Yet once Pastor Paul (a gripping Greg Ruud), the senior pastor of this megachurch, starts his sermon, the taut narrative that follows is far from what you’d expect in a tale about an evangelical-oriented American house of worship.
The pastor, in an impassioned sermon, makes a startling declaration.
(If you haven’t yet seen the show, this could be a spoiler, so if you want the full impact of the sermon, stop reading now.)
What if the idea that you have to believe in Christ to make it to heaven is just simply wrong? What if everyone goes? What if – drum roll, please, and this is sure to rock your Council of Nicea-inspired world – there is no hell?
It’s incendiary stuff, and, sure enough, a dissenting voice speaks up: Associate Pastor Joshua (a mesmerizing Billy Jack Anderson), who mounts a defense of Christian tradition.
Will Pastor Paul’s charisma and passion be enough to retain the loyalty of his flock? Or will a schism ensue and he be considered a modern-day apostate and lose his church members, along with the financial support that funds his paycheck?
The cast is uniformly strong. Ruud is wonderful in the role, drawing on his years of real-life pastoring experience. Katie Lewis, as his wife, and Jennifer Lewis, as a church congregant whose support for Pastor Paul turns to doubt, both excel in finely honed secondary roles. Mark Standriff, as a church elder, strikes an intriguing balance between obsequiousness to the charismatic pastor and fiscal nagging.
Anderson is deft at playing bland and mousy in the play’s first scenes, and then returns with a revelatory monologue that feels raw and real.
Joel C. Abels’ set and Dan Aldape’s lighting design evoke the sense of a traditional church sanctuary. And the 10-member choir soars with some fine musical selections, including Harrison Mills in a dynamic solo.
As for the play itself: I have mixed feelings. Hnath is scrupulous in the way he sets up an equal playing field in terms of religious debate. “The Christians” doesn’t bash the church. Nor does it come down on the side of rewriting the “rules.” There are well-calibrated arguments from both points of view. And each side gets powerful emotional support as well, thanks to beautifully wrought moments from Ruud and Anderson.
The part that doesn’t ring true to me, however, is that the play seems more an interesting academic exercise than a true dive into the volatile human experience of religion.
I’ve been through a church schism, and they are brutal. (And mine was about relatively mundane issues, not anything close to a battle over a fundamental tenet of Christianity.)
We’re talking, after all, about religion, a practice found across all cultures that seems hard-wired into our DNA, and one that is inextricably bound up with what seems a fundamental human trait of separating ourselves from others whether it be through borders, ethnic differences or simply I’m right and you’re wrong. People have killed each other (and still do today!) over theological disputes much less dramatic than Pastor Paul’s.
Yet “The Christians” feels annoyingly detached, almost hypothetical in its construction, at times positively genteel. It’s like a cross between a dailykos.com convention breakout religious seminar (all beliefs welcome!) and a late-night freshman dorm bull session after the moral relativism lecture in Philosophy 101.
Take, for example, the reaction to Pastor Paul’s bombshell statement that there is no hell. There’s almost no reaction from the choir members, who are acting as surrogates for the congregation. Perhaps they’re just in shock. But in the days and weeks that follow, the script makes clear that the majority of church members stick with Pastor Paul even as he advocates a radical change in Christian dogma. (Perhaps his beliefs would be accepted in certain liberal denominations, but even though Hnath coyly refrains from overtly defining the church in his play as evangelical, it’s pretty clear that’s his intention.)
If this really happened in a church like Pastor Paul’s, the backlash would be immediate and tremendous.
So here’s my cynical view. “The Christians” is far kinder and more wildly optimistic in terms of the way humans organize themselves into zones of religious exclusivity than I think is warranted.
Yet I can find a more charitable view, too. Which is that “The Christians” is thought-provoking, sincere and begs a fascinating discussion about the nature of faith and belief. Add to that a handful of very fine performances, and it’s a worthwhile experience. With church as theater, two worlds blend in a significant way.