Donald Munro

For Greg Ruud in ‘The Christians,’ a variation on life imitating art

The choir marches down the aisle to the front of the sanctuary singing “Our God is an awesome God.” The singers end up behind a grand wooden pulpit emblazoned with not one but two crosses. As the music fades, the pastor takes center stage. He fixes a long, kindly look on the “congregation,” like a father at the head of the dinner table deeply stirred to see his large brood settling into their seats, and smiles serenely.

“Amen,” the pastor says.

And then, again, but more softly: “Amen.”

That second “Amen” is what seals the deal when it comes to Greg Ruud playing the pastor in StageWorks Fresno’s “The Christians,” a provocative (and notably even-handed) play that dives into matters of faith and church politics that runs March 31-April 9. It’s a tiny moment, not even in the script, that adds a sliver of veracity that feels real. It isn’t just that the 60-year-old looks the part, right up to his TV-evangelist-perfect sweep of luxuriant gray hair. He says that second “Amen” with the inflection and dare we say muscle memory of someone who’s done this before – not as an actor but as a bona fide pastor.

That’s because he was.

For 12 years, Ruud worked at two major Evangelical churches in Fresno as a youth pastor and associate pastor. He gave sermons. He worked with youth groups. He ministered to large and spiritually hungry flocks.

And he found himself drifting away, slowly, from some of the teachings of the church. He could get wholeheartedly behind the Bible’s exhortation to love one another. But on other, finer, theological points, such as the acceptance of gays in the church or the idea of eternal damnation for non-believers? Those got harder to hang onto.

“This is me. This is my story,” says the longtime Fresno actor. “How many times do you feel like there’s a role that was written for you?”

In Lucas Hnath’s 2014 play, Ruud plays Pastor Paul, who has built his church from a tiny congregation to a massive institution that has just paid off its debt on a big, handsome building. On the Sunday celebrating this accomplishment, Paul preaches a sermon that rocks the congregation. The resulting controversy could break the church apart.

For Ruud, the experience so far has been weird and wonderful. He’s played many different roles on stage before, from villains (the dastardly Bill Sykes in “Oliver,” the disgruntled Judd Frey in “Oklahoma”) and fathers (Lord Triton in “Little Mermaid”) to the downright goofy (one of the dads in “Heathers the Musical.”) But this one, as Pastor Paul – well, it seems effortless.

“I don’t even feel like I’m acting,” he says.

First theater exposure

Theater and church have ebbed and flowed several times in Ruud’s life. He grew up in a household that wasn’t religious. At age 16, he got involved in Campus Life/Youth for Christ at Kerman High School.

It transformed his life, he says. After high school, he worked for a couple of years as a junior-high leader for Youth for Christ.

“And then I started working at the theater, as a waiter at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater in 1979,” he says with a laugh. In his early 20s, he drifted away from religion.

The theater was a new world for him. He’d sit in the audience at Roger Rocka’s tabulating checks during the second acts of the shows and was drawn to the action on stage. “Man of La Mancha,” starring Donald Gunn as Don Quixote, mesmerized him. So did Clytee Ramsey in “Hello, Dolly!”

One thing led to another, and he found himself at Roger Rocka’s in his very first role on stage: as Jesus in “Godspell.” His long hair and beard probably helped in the casting decision. (He got a terrible review from the critic for Fresno State’s newspaper, he remembers.)

Then he got married and started a family. His roaring ‘20s got tamer. After appearing in a number of shows, Ruud fell away from the theater scene. He got a job in the agriculture industry, focusing his attention on garbanzo beans and black-eyed peas. And he started to go to church again with his wife, Debi (a noted local singer and teacher).

His life was taking a different path. He started volunteering as a youth pastor. That led to a job at First Baptist Church of Fresno. He went to seminary, which the church paid for. After seven years, he moved to NorthPointe Community Church, where he was hired as pastor of spiritual development.

He was there for five years, and it was a good run for him. (“I was the screwed-up pastor,” he says, “who would share from my failures, and people could relate.”) With his hair still in a ponytail, his casual ease in front of the congregation – and particularly his comic timing, honed from his time on the stage – worked well in the relaxed setting of NorthPointe.

But he started to chafe at some of the church’s teachings, including on homosexuality and the existence of Hell.

“I just found that there were fewer and fewer things that I felt fully convicted of that I could preach with full conviction,” he says. “I felt like I couldn’t be authentic.”

He was dealing with family problems, too, and reached a point he felt he couldn’t be a pastor anymore. He left the church. He’s divorced now. And he works as a Realtor.

Back to the theater fold

About 45 minutes before the first dress rehearsal of “The Christians” is to begin, Ruud realizes he’s forgotten his suit jacket. He hops in his car to drive to his Tower District home.

Fun fact: When he was a preacher, he didn’t wear a suit.

This has been an easy show for him to get into character for, but it’s a bear of a role in terms of line load. (He’s on stage the entire time.) That extra preparation, along with a busy time in a tightening real estate market, has kept him hopping.

After a 17-year break from the theater, Ruud returned to the fold after his departure from NorthPointe, and he’s been on a tear on the stage ever since, doing prominent roles in shows for StageWorks Fresno, Good Company Players and Woodward Shakespeare Festival.

He is often a bright and magnanimous presence in his roles, sometimes playing decades younger, often bringing an astute sense of how to make a line “sing” even when it isn’t set to music. He’s a natural.

Along the way, he’s rediscovered a new sense of family.

“In many ways the theater fulfills the function that the church probably did at one time for me. It’s a community of people who all look out for each other, who take care of each other, who have issues and are critical of each other,” he says.

“Just like church,” he adds wryly.

The secular fictional world often beats up on churches. You can’t blame churchgoers for being wary of the portrayal of Christianity on stage and screen, seeing how easy it is to portray religion in caricatured ways. Yet “The Christians” strives for something more thoughtful.

Alissa Wilkinson, writing in Christianity Today, says the play doesn’t have a ‘message’ or a point of view on salvation to proclaim. “It’s a harrowing dig through our hearts, a play about our deepest and, often, most noble desires and motivations and yearnings – it just also happens to take place in a place many Americans frequent every week and believe in deeply,” she writes.

For Ruud, one of the play’s strongest points is how nonjudgmental it is. And how close it has been to his own spiritual walk through life.

“Our faith shifts and changes,” he says, “and that affects the people around us.”

Can we get an “Amen” to that?

The Christians

Theater preview