Thursday, September 17, 2015

64. Review: THE CHRISTIANS (seen September 15, 2015)

“Imagine there’s No . . . Hell”
Stars range from 5-1.

John Lennon famously asked us to “Imagine there's no heaven/It's easy if you try/No hell below us/Above us only sky.” In THE CHRISTIANS,  Lucas Hnath’s mildly eccentric, thoughtful ninety-minute play, Paul (Andew Garman), charismatic leader of a newly built evangelical megachurch, whose costs have just been paid off, delivers a surprising sermon in which he tells his thousands of parishioners that he’s come to the conviction that hell doesn’t exist. His wife, Elizabeth (Linda Powell), and Elder Jay (Phillip Kerr), head of the church’s board—may be puzzled, but no one objects until Associate Pastor Joshua (Larry Powell) admits to “wrestling” with the proposition. He politely challenges Paul in a tense debate citing scripture and verse, with Paul explaining why the Bible’s English translation can’t be trusted.  The congregation is polled and most decide to accept Paul’s position. Paul abruptly asks the much-loved Joshua—albeit someone who tends to warn “sinners” of their path to hell—to leave. He does, followed by only fifty others.  
 I’m not a Christian, and my theological views are admittedly uninformed, but it’s hard not to think that any leading evangelical pastor—Billy Graham, Rick Warren, or Joel Osteen, for example—would be asked to step down if he suddenly insisted there’s no hell. Belief in heaven and hell, and the need for salvation through acceptance of the Lord, are bedrocks of Christian faith. Paul claims that no matter how wicked people have been—even Hitler—they’ll wind up in heaven, a place so pure that people will join their murderers in one big happy family. He also rejects the Christian belief that decent people, even saintly heroes, will be damned merely because they haven’t accepted Jesus.
Sure enough, after initially accepting Paul’s argument, a crack appears in the church's facade when, a quiet, shy congregant named Jenny (Emily Donahue), asks a series of increasingly skeptical questions that force a great fissure to open between Paul’s beliefs and those of his followers. Soon, the hell that Paul says exists only within people’s relationships with one another (Sartre’s “Hell is other people” comes to mind), surrounds him as his wife—whose beliefs don’t coincide with his—finds herself struggling to reconcile her spousal love with her faith. Paul’s leadership is threatened and his church begins to founder. Meanwhile, reverberating in our skulls is the danger of ideological absolutism, religious, political, or whatever.
Hnath’s theological inquiry is easy for laymen—regardless of their religious beliefs—to grasp, although presented in a typically unconventional way, as is usual with this playwright. THE CHRISTIANS is set entirely on the wood paneled stage of a typical megachurch (well designed by Dane Laffrey and perfectly lit by Ben Stanton), with large screen TV-monitors showing soothing images hovering overhead, a large cross set against the back wall, a space upstage for a substantial chorus, and half a dozen velvet-upholstered fancy chairs downstage on which sit the church’s leaders, facing the audience. Entering the auditorium one immediately feels as if one is in church. The choral singers, who alternate with others at different performances, sing several hymns during the show.
All the scenes, regardless of where they’re set—including a bedroom with the characters in bed—are played on the church’s stage, each scene, no matter how private, having the aura of a public debate, with the actors speaking/whispering all their lines into mics, with lots of walking about while flipping cables out of the way. Although the actors speak with honesty and conviction—sometimes surprisingly so—the approach, heightened by Les Waters’s coolly distanced direction, privileges the play’s ideas over its characters, complex as they may seem. This effect is further underlined by Hnath’s having Paul frequently make comments into his mic like, “He says,” or “She says,” after someone has spoken, almost as if reporting it to us. Brecht seems to have been looking over the playwright’s shoulder during the writing.
Garman is in his groove as the pastor, speaking calmly and with great self-confidence as he presents his ideas and rebuts those of others; at times, when seriously challenged, he comes off as a slippery snake oil salesman, a significant part of such men’s charm. Each of the other actors must sit for long periods of time, facing us and listening to Paul’s lengthy opening sermon before engaging in dialogue with him. When they do, they all speak with controlled power, allowing their feelings to burst forth only at highly selective moments. Mr. Powell, Ms. Powell, Mr. Kerr, and Ms. Donahue turn in very fine performances, although Ms. Donahue’s speech seemed a bit muffled, even with a mic in her hands.

THE CHRISTIANS, originally seen at Louiville's Humana Festival in 2014, is a good example of the modern discussion drama. Hnath has managed to put a gripping theological problem into a novel dramatic format and to humanize it through a central character whose pride goeth before his fall.

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