Kinetic Theater’s production of Lucas Hnath’s The Christians is a terrific drama, but it’s heavily philosophical and thus necessitates a commitment towards an open, curious mind.
At first, I was locked into my seat thinking that I had been tricked into a sermon. There’s a giant, looming cross suspended over the platform. A choir comes out to sing. A bunch of clean-cut church-leader types infiltrate the audience, begin shaking hands…then David Whalen’s Pastor Paul begins talking.
There’s that infinite vagueness of religious verse:
Because you have rejected this message,
relied on oppression
and depended on deceit,
this sin will become for you
like a high wall, cracked and bulging,
that collapses suddenly, in an instant.
That’s Isaiah 30, 12:13. It’s imperative to theme of this play. At first, not so clear. You’re stewing in the sermon, not realizing the moral is marinating. A religious question is but the scent for a main course which centers around the flawed humanity of conviction.
Director Andrew Paul describes where the motivation of this play originates:
“Hnath [the writer]’s goal was to write a play that opened with a sermon that a non-Christian could listen to and think, “well, maybe this preacher’s got a point.” ….He just wanted to get a decent number of audience members past certain assumptions about Christianity and hear what the characters are trying to communicate.”
So, this play dives into a difficulty of religion: its questions. Whalen’s Pastor very much holds the kind, familiar but invariably patriarchal and commanding figure of a charming, friendly pulpit-monger: the storyteller, the guide, the man with a crystal connection to the Almighty in his heart. The part is Oxfords and khakis, with an always-smile and a discomfiting familiarity to the microphone always being two inches from his wise and prattling mouth. Whalen carries this main character through the flight of his struggle. It’s a blossoming affirmation. We get to see the benevolent arrogance of a man blossom, then begin to torture itself to death. He carries the tone of a man bred to lead led to the natural test of a religion’s vanity: the taboo of its inevitable doubts.
Without spoiling too much, I’ll say that this play centers around this pastor deciding that “hell” is a misinterpretation of the Bible. The fear of hell, as postulated in the play, is an invention. The reality Pastor Paul concedes is that god’s blessing bestows security onto and into everyone. What a gip for the true-blue practicing Christians, eh?
What we then see is the unwinding of this man’s foundation. His congregation splits and it’s kinda like the movie High Noon, but at the altar. The man who conceives of a radical, new and challenging truth is shunned until he’s facing his doom completely alone.
The emotional power of this cast is outrageous. Let’s start with Joshua Elijah Reese’s Associate Pastor Joshua. A tightly-wound, normally restrained character who with his first lines begins to crack into a too-impassioned zealot. We see the edges break, and Reese’s ability to show the exaggeration of this animated, emotionally vigorous man become begrudgingly distrustful. We see a birth of his fundamentalism on stage, and it’s scary. His conviction becomes a barb in a collection of facial tics: reaction to the incredulous. It’s awkward and it’s hairy. But it’s real. The emotion comes from a place of truth. That’s what you end up watching—how disturbed this actor can make this character.
Same goes Robert Haley’s Church Elder Jay. A man so self-possessed and clean-cut for life he boxes up with confrontation. A hard-shelled animal encasing a soft-hearted man who knows better than to rock the boat. I loved seeing the subtlety in this actor’s reactions. He bites into silence with a clean, soundless gulp. His nervousness has animation and it fed this character so much grave understanding and easily inferred meanings.
A realness too exists in Gayle Pazerski’s congregant Jenny. Jenny comes alive with each question she asks, popping a new aspect of her character’s fortitude out with a terribly defensive logic. Her curiosity is masochistic, because it dissolves one truth for another and thus her foundation quakes. She becomes more emotionally wracked but stronger with each painful discovery and Pazerski trembles the level that a rational damning would do to her conviction. She betrays some kind of human trust for dogma, but in so doing loses chunk by chunk bits of her trust in humanity. Watching Pazerski’s portrayal of a harrowed woman come out of her troubles only to find existential doubt waiting in the road is pathetic. But somehow, she fiercely overcomes (sorry, spoiler).
What’s scary about this play is how innocuous the setting seems. A church appeals as a refuge, particularly to the Christians. But it comes with a contract: one that demands a certain tableau of assignations; such as, you accept Jesus. But what if…that’s an option? The whole system of consequence crumbles.
What is the weight of sin without consequence?
Mindy Woodhead’s Elizabeth is the Pastor’s Wife. This part kills. Man, she covers so much emotional ground. So much power swept into the affirmative, once again, conviction of this self-strong woman disabling a broken skeptic with her righteous will.
I focus on the actors because that’s what this play delivers. Woodhead’s performance brings up a staggering swell of emotional and self-righteous appeal. This is a play about doubt and conviction. But sometimes that it includes the conviction of doubt.
Besides the content and besides the subject matter, this play delves into a greatly human inquiry as to what drives us and how unrelenting is that need for absolute trust. And with a 2000-year-old text filled with seeming metaphors that may or may not be literal, the fight ends up being two dogmas fighting it out in a ring.
The emotional fall-out should be illegal. It’s the kind of grudge-making that begins wars.
Watch that match burn. Watch serious people begin to fall apart and begin to become their true destined selves.
The Christians by Kinetic Theatre plays at the New Hazlett Theater through July 2nd. Tickets and more information can be found here.
Special thanks to Kinetic Theatre for complimentary press tickets. Photos courtesy of Rocky Raco.