At Pacific Theatre until October 7, 2017
Posted September 18, 2017
I know where I stand: if there were a Heaven and if I were Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates, I would not deny Mahatma Gandhi (nor my old dog Cody) admission because neither of them was a Christian. The exclusivity of the Christian church, making Heaven inaccessible to millions of good people who practice no faith or faiths other than Christianity, drove me out of Gospel Hall at the age of twelve.
Everyone else can go to Hell?
Hell, in Lucas Hnath’s controversial and thought-provoking play The Christians, is the issue. On the very day the mortgage gets paid off on the big new church – one that grew from a small storefront hall to an impressive new building accommodating a congregation of fifteen hundred, Pastor Paul (Ron Reed) shocks everyone when he announces in his sermon he no longer believes in Hell and the church will no longer be threatening parishioners with it. What? All these years the church has been threatening sinners with fire and brimstone and now there’s no Hell?
A chasm opens up as Associate Pastor Joshua (Tré Cotten) challenges Pastor Paul, scripture for scripture. After a heated debate, they agree to disagree and Pastor Paul invites Joshua to leave, which he does, taking part of the congregation with him.
Accusations are then made by single-mother congregant Jenny (Mariam Barry). Why did Pastor Paul wait until the very day the mortgage was paid off to drop the bombshell, she asks? And was all that growth and expense necessary? Was it Pastor Paul’s passion to spread God’s word or was it pure egotism?
The divide widens and draws in Pastor Paul’s wife Elizabeth (Erin Ormond) and Pastor Paul’s old friend and supporter Elder Jay (Allan Morgan).
Without question, The Christians will cause you to double check your own values. And it might get a little uncomfortable.
Reviews of The Christians all say that Hnath does not come down on one side or the other but that’s not completely true. The story that Pastor Paul tells Joshua, and Joshua’s response to it, clinched the argument for me.
Director Sarah Rodgers’ staging is terrific: we feel we are in an evangelical church. There are pews and, best of all, there’s an organist and a church choir. We join in the singing and clapping but some of us begin to feel just a little bit uncomfortable as we go from upbeat gospel singing to more serous hymns. Blood of the Lamb and all that. How far is this going to go?
The playwright requires the performers – with the exception of the choir – to carry and speak through microphones. It definitely adds a Billy Graham quality to the play and to the whole church-as-corporation feel.
The performances are superb. Pastor Paul is clearly troubled and Ron Reed projects the character’s turmoil, even his uncertainty about his own motives. Why did he wait until the mortgage was paid to advise the congregation about his change of heart? Does he really believe it when he says, “God had not yet told me to give that sermon”? This is a deeply conflicted man and Reed moves inexorably from Paul’s initial certainty to miserable uncertainty. If there’s a Hell, he’s in it.
Associate Pastor Joshua, as portrayed by Tré Cotten, is charismatic then confused and finally cocky. Once again, I think Hnath takes sides although it’s possible this was a directorial choice and could have been played differently.
A very strong performance by Mariam Barry as Jenny is the catalyst for all the turmoil. Barry’s Jenny grows increasingly assertive and finally downright aggressive. Pastor Paul begins to wither under the onslaught.
Pastor Paul’s relationship with his wife Elizabeth is sort of creepy as Erin Ormond shows us. Whilst declaring he loves his wife, Paul treats her as if she is sub-intelligent; she has, until now, gone along with it: the perky Pastor’s wife in the perky little hat. But Elizabeth gets stronger and stronger.
After a hiatus, Allan Morgan, as Elder Jay, is back and showing all his well-honed chops.
The Christians is a fascinating but disconcerting play. Are there really still people who believe in a Heaven – available only to Christians – with streets flowing with milk and honey? Or a Hell in which sinners – including those who never heard of God or Jesus – will burn for all eternity? Really?
“Will there come a time when there are no Christians?” Pastor Paul asks. If intolerance toward non-Christians is a cornerstone of the church, then the play suggests it’s time significant changes were made – and some churches have certainly made some – or the Christian church should fold its tent and leave.