"The Christians" Review - Latest Hnath Play a Bold Conversation-Starter

January 28, 2017 - San Francisco, California, USA – Playwright Lucas Hnath's The Christians made its Bay Area debut on Chinese New Year at Union Square's San Francisco Playhouse. And with 2017 being the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, this debut is as well-timed as it was well-received. Hnath's depiction of a one-man ministry that grows to be a mega-church and then suddenly takes a left turn is more than thought-provoking: it is astounding in its treatment of a major schism in a (presumably) Protestant Christian congregation. As the production company describes the story, the audience is presented with a “battle between fear and compassion” during which main character, Pastor Paul suddenly does not believe in Hell, shares this new idea in a Sunday sermon, and then expects happiness and agreement in return.

Pastor Paul (Anthony Fusco*, left) begins a church service with Associate Pastor Joshua (Lance Gardner*), Elder Jay (Warren David Keith*) and his wife Elizabeth (Stephanie Prentice*) as the choir sings.

The Christians is set as a church service- with all of its sense of potential wonder as well as potential drama. Under the expert direction of SF Playhouse's Bill English, cast members engage convincingly, even despite playing members of a church whilst- confirmed- having only “once been” attached to a church of some kind in the past. A 20-member robed volunteer choir provides backdrop to the exchanges at center stage as well as spirited song. All of this works. All of this engages. And all of this allows for some deep thinking about, as Bill English says, “the thorny topic of religious belief” that has “the power to unite or divide.”

Pastor Paul (Anthony Fusco*) shares some good news with his congregation.

In Hnath's story, “Pastor Paul,” (played ,more than convincingly, by Marin resident Anthony Fusco) believes he has heard a “word” from God that changes a major aspect of his faith- and he is instantly eager to share that “word” with his congregation. His congregation becomes divided over the issue, and Paul's delivery of it--- and then we see each of what would normally be the pillars of support to a pastor weighing in- and (spoiler alert) without much benefit. The play unfolds with intense conversations- distant in religious/spiritual standing and made all the more distant by the characters' posturing and use of microphones for one-on-one exchanges.

Associate Pastor Joshua (Lance Gardner*) and Pastor Paul (Anthony Fusco*) debate their differing interpretations of scripture.

Pastor Paul is first approached and challenged by his assistant pastor (played perfectly by Lance Gardner) who he has groomed since the young man's first entrance to the church at a time in life when he was spiritually and otherwise broken. Next challenger is the head elder (played smoothly by Warren David Keith) who asserts the authority of his position but also extends his love for his pastor. We see this change. A young female congregant (played winningly by Millie Moore) is the next accuser; she unexpectedly bounds up out of the choir loft and tearfully shares her disenchantment and loss of trust, particularly since she is a soul lifted up, as a single mother in poverty, by her church family. Eventually we get an even more intimate view of the ways in which Paul's religious “epiphany” brings change when he is confronted by his wife, Elizabeth (expertly played by Stephanie Prentiss).

 

Does any of this sound familiar? It should: Anyone who has observed the Christian Church in America over time might recall what happened in Tulsa Oklahoma in 2002 when Bishop Carlton Pearson introduced what he called the “gospel of inclusion,” a variation on universal reconciliation. Prompted by watching a TV show about the suffering and genocide in Rwanda, Pearson began to reconsider his idea that anyone who was not a believer in Jesus Christ would go to Hell. Further, he posited that Hell was a condition of eternal torment that was experienced on earth- not in any “afterlife.” Even further, he claimed this concept was an “epiphany” given to him from God.

 

In Hnath's work in The Christians, we see character Pastor Paul laying out this very same idea, only introduced via a story about a boy who runs into a burning building (a popular construct for Christian evangelizing) to save his sister at the expense of his own life. The hero's death becomes a tragedy, as Pastor Paul describes, less so for its untimeliness and more so for its occurring before he is “saved” by faith in Jesus Christ and thus doomed to eternity in Hell. In 2004, Bishop Pearson's idea was deemed heresy by the Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops. Membership in his New Dimensions Church, which had enjoyed mega-church status, fell to under 1,000 members.

Pastor Paul (Anthony Fusco*) and Elder Jay (Warren David Keith*) discuss the future of their church.

And here in The Christians we see Pastor Paul serving a congregation that, he too, nourished from a tiny group and grew into mega-size. Only here might we say Hnath takes this story and puts a unique spin on it? Or is this the point at which the audience steps in to fill the void of knowing with its own presuppositions and life experiences? This might be one idea to toss around: Demonstrating the importance of not only openness but also diversity and inclusion: the lead pastor is a white guy who (spoiler alert) is challenged by his African-American brother in Christ and then by his, presumably, white congregation. The upshot of this is that we might be given a momentary glimpse- if we are awake and not unconscious- of the way in which God operates...

Jenny, a congregant (Millie Brooks) gives testimony to the congregation as Pastor Paul (Anthony Fusco*) and Elder Jay (Warren David Keith*) look on.

Hnath denies, however, any major connection to or inspiration from thePearson “heresy”event. “It's just as much based on Antigone, with Pastor Paul as Creon,” he stated in an interview with Michael Paulson for the New York Times. And while Hnath has consulted with “theologically-minded” friends such as The Rev. David R. Collins, pastor of Maitland Presbyterian Church in Florida and Mark Schultz, a playwright studying to be an Episcopal priest, and has a background in an Assemblies of God church and a hospice chaplain mother, this work is mainly interested in asking- as in each of his plays- “How do you know what you know and are you sure of that?”

 

Hnath's work as a playwright came about after he made a decision to stop studying pre-med at NYU and focus on dramatic writing. His influences include Freud, Jung, and Lacan. “I think a thing that I got out of reading Lacan,” Hnath said in an interview with Tim Sanford for Playwrights Horizons, “is this idea about how what 'real' keeps slipping away from you, so you have to spray things with language in order to see them better, to see something incredibly difficult to see by approaching it from lots of tricky angles. I was going to see Richard Foreman at that time too, who arguably theatricalizes a Lacanian riddle: 'I'm going to take something that's really hard to name, and in fact by naming it becomes not the thing that it was before you named it and I'm going to try to visualize that onstage while realizing that any attempt to represent this onstage is going to fail.” (Try saying that three times, fast!)

Pastor Paul (Anthony Fusco*) and his wife Elizabeth (Stephanie Prentice*) discuss Paul’s evolving faith.

Consider all this while viewing The Christians- along with the way in which Hnath likes to make his set unique. As he also told Sanford in his Playwrights Horizons interview, “I often thought that plays are constructed out of live experiments and negotiations and trials...So, I think it may be part of the reason my plays either have a little bit of a feeling of a court trial, or something happening in an operating theater.”

 

The audience can appreciate this as the play unfolds on a set designed as the inside of a church that also becomes a place of trial. We see the usual items: large chairs placed in front for those leading worship, a railing (beautifully designed in wrought iron shaped as narrow-leaf cattails), a pulpit (echoing the cattails) that is too tall for the smallest congregant to stand at it without using a step-stool, and old-fashioned hand-held microphones, tethered to cords and limiting the characters' movement (and perhaps putting distance between them even as they attempt to move closer to one another?) We have stained glass windows, monitors for viewing uplifting images and song lyrics. And then we see the cross: notably devoid of Jesus, but gigantic, even in back center, derived from what looks to be solid white marble, a focal point that, at times, is front-lit and, at other times, put into darkness. We, as audience, are seated as in a church service, ourselves: eyes up to the raised-up pulpit, over-sized chairs aligned for those taking part in the worship service, organist with his back to us, robed choir staring back at us and even giving us an idea of their own responses to the drama unfolding between their on-stage pastor and his entourage. The set-up seems to wrap itself around the actors as they engage to advance the story.

 

Hnath says he wrote the first 30 pages of The Christians in a workshop at New Dramatists then sought out actors without religious affiliations. He them had these actors watch video of preachers like Benny Hinn and Kathryn Kuhlman and write down what they liked and didn't like; that was the starting point from which he wrote his main character. As the show opens and the singing begins, viewers would do well to pay careful attention for a special kind of irony (although, supposedly, irony is absent, as claimed (joked?) by actor Warren David Keith) in the lyrics to the choir's opening number, “God's Unchanging Hand”:

“Time is filled with swift transition. Naught of earth unmoved can stand. Build your hopes on things eternal. Hold to God's unchanging hand.”

The cast and crew of ‘The Christians’ with the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco Choir.

Tom Irwin, who played the lead character last month when the play was produced at Steppenwolf, says he “can feel an energy” about the story, and “even if you don't like the play or even if you don't care for our production of it or what have you, you can't help but think about it... throughout the play there are a series of alternative points of view... and you can feel the audience go, “oh, wait, I can see that...” I think they are quite blown away by the argument, and the they need to talk about it.”

 

It makes you examine yourself,” K Todd Freeman said during his involvement with the Steppenwolf production, “because this is a play about distinctly combating ideas. “What I love so much about the play is that I find myself on both sides of those ideas, on a subject that I thought I was on one side of... I think it makes you self-examine and I hope people get to do that, to allow themselves to open up.”

So what about this “unchurched” aspect of a cast involved in a play about “church”? This reporter just had to know. “I was attached to the Episcopal church but not anymore,” Warren David Keith (who plays the church elder), said during our post-performance conversation. Millie Moore, who plays “Jennie,” the congregant who also confronts Pastor Paul, says she “used to be a Methodist.” Even lead actor Anthony Fusco said, “I went to church until about age 7.” When probed further, Fusco also said he considers himself to be neither “religious” nor “spiritual”- but does welcome the opportunity to be a part of a performance that is so thought-provoking. This seemed to be a universal theme since even Lance Gardner, the actor who played a very strong yet extremely thoughtful opposite to Pastor Paul, also said he had no religious affiliation, but added, “It sure is a great thing to talk about it, isn't it?” 

If you consider yourself a person of religious faith, go and see this play. If you despise religious faith, go and see this play. There is so much more to say here about the layers upon layers of potential talking points that the playwright offers his audience in this work- and he does do an excellent job of posing that question, “How do you know what you know and are you sure you know that?” More than just a question of simple hermeneutics, this, of course, provides an excellent reason for quality post-performance conversations.

©2017 M. D. Caprario

Production Photos Courtesy of Jessica Palpoli/SF Playhouse

The Playwright:Lucas Hnath is a resident playwright at New Dramatists and his plays have been produced or developed at an assortment of venues, including Actors Theatre of Louisville, The Culture Project, Ontological-Hysteric Theater,Ensemble Studio Theatre, and Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. His plays include The Christians (2014 Humana Festival), Red Speedo (Studio Theatre, DC), A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney (Soho Rep), nightnight (2013 Human Festival), Isaac's Eye (Ensemble Studio Theatre), Death Tax (2012 Humana Festival, Royal Court Theatre), and The Courtship of Anna Nicole Smith (Actors Theatre of Louisville). Lucas is a winner of the 2012 Whitfield Cook Award for Isaac's Eye and a 2013 Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award Citation for Death Tax. He is also a recipient of commissions from the EST/Sloan Project, Actors Theatre of Louisville, South Coast Repertory, Playwrights Horizons, New York University's Graduate Acting Program, and the Royal Court Theatre.

The Christians was published by Overlook Press last year.

The Company: San Francisco Playhouse is a non-profit theater company in San Francisco, California founded in 2003 by Bill English and Susi Damilano. The theater stages nine plays yearly, including Broadway plays, musicals, and world and regional premieres. The San Francisco Chronicletouted “the company that lived a hand-to-mouth existence for its first few years has become the little playhouse that could... with its bold Sandbox Series (becoming) a player in developing new works...” The group is committed to providing a creative home and inspiring environment where actors, directors, writers, designers, and theater lovers converge to create works that celebrate the human spirit.

The Christians” runs through March 11, 2017 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco.

Single ticket prices begin at $35, on sale to the public now by calling the San Francisco Playhouse box office at 415/677-9596 or by visiting the web site atthe San Francisco Playhouse website.

 

 

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