In Church, we go to church. That is to say, we sit in darkness on folding chairs, bathed in religious music, grand and engaging, and beautifully sung by an unseen and uncredited choir.
Then, still in darkness, we hear a sermon from the Rev. Jose (Kevin Hasser). Its subject is humility. We go to church to hear answers to the eternal questions, such as what happens to us when we die, or to celebrate the answers we believe we have already found. Rev. Jose similarly takes the long view; we are consumed with our everyday problems – we have lost our jobs; our child is on drugs; our relationship is in tatters – but Rev. Jose reminds us that our problems are but indentations on a grain of sand; in a thousand years they will be forgotten, and so will we.
Church gives us perspective, though it does not pay next month’s rent, or get young Jason out of the homeless shelter, or relieve the coldness of the empty place on the bed next to you.
The lights go up, and the Rev. Jose is before us, along with his colleagues the Rev. Nora (Nora Achrati), the Rev. Blair (Blair Bowers) and the Rev. Stacy (Anastasia Wilson). They are glad to see us, and they go up and down the aisle, shaking our hands and thanking us for coming. They are all young and attractive, not at all like the overbearing, judgmental cleric you remember from your youth. They have been through hard times, and have found the answer, and they want to tell you about it.
They ask for prayer requests…and this is the only moment that we realize fully that we are in a theater, and not in church. In real church, people compete with each other to lay the most trivial requests before the altar of God, but in Forum’s Silver Spring theater, we genuflect before the fourth wall. “Unemployment,” someone, after a long pause, croaks out and somebody else adds “no more power failures.” We dutifully pray for these things.
Then Rev. Nora makes a prayer request, and we see playwright Young Jean Lee’s mischievous humor sneak in. The Rev. Nora explains that she has just broken up with her boyfriend of four years, and has bought a self-help book designed to help her understand why she gets into bad relationships. Rev. Nora, with the help of the book, traces the problem to an incident in early childhood, which she describes. Then she prays for help in overcoming her addiction to self-help books.
The religion of Church is a sensible variety of the Christian text, palatable though by no means easy. I hesitate to say that it is appealing, because everyone looks for something different from her religion, but it has elements I find appealing: it eschews the obsessive interest in sex which characterizes so many practices, and indeed shows little concern for any specific human vice – except narcissism, and the self-involvement which interprets God and the world only as they effect the self.
Then the Reverends testify. And that’s where it starts to get weird. They have each of them fallen; they have each of them known sin; and they have each of them been brought back up again in ways they consider miraculous. This is the standard trope of the shared religious experience, and it is not unexpected.
But…mummies who excrete cotton balls? Being lifted up ten feet by a gush of chicken blood you are drinking through a pipe? Waking up with Satan sitting on your chest? The third testimonial, by Rev. Blair (Rev. Stacy not being moved to testify), seemed like a description of a bad dream, with everyday events becoming suddenly ominous, and ordinary people morphing into angels and devils.
It is important to note that, however implausible the stories are, there is never a moment of implausibility on stage. Hasser, Achrati, Bowers and Wilson give committed performances, matching the commitment of real preachers in real religion.
And there is not an ounce of condescension in Lee’s script; no matter how disturbing their stories are, the Reverends are real people, experiencing real pain. Hasser, who has had a good year (he was in 1st Stage’s acclaimed Side Man, and Laughter on the 23rd Floor at Keegan as well), gives us a complicated, layered Rev. Jose, reverent but impish, candid and modest. The diminutive Achrati is sweet and cheerful at the play’s dawn, but before she finishes you will believe that the Rev. Nora is a retired junkie who has led a formidably sordid life. And you can believe that the Rev. Blair is a minister who has it completely together, and who may also be insane.
Director Michael Dove moves things along at a pace which is quick but seems unhurried, just as they do at the most effective real churches.
Religions are almost always founded in what appears to the modern eye to be hallucination, whether it be God appearing to Moses in the burning bush or the Angel Moroni appearing before Joseph Smith with sacred texts. In ancient days an encounter with a god or gods was an everyday occurrence, and this is true for religions across the globe, notwithstanding that they had no contact with each other. (For an interesting theory about this, get hold of “The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind,” by the Harvard anthropologist and physician Julian Jaynes).
Certainly the convenient appearance of a higher power can help to explain things which are otherwise inexplicable (hence the term Deus ex Machina, used to describe the resolution of bad plays.) But the universe is also much stranger than we understand, and the existence of gods and devils, while not proved, cannot be ruled out. For this reason, many great scientists, including Einstein and Darwin, were religious people.
Following their stories of hallucination or redemption, the Reverends seem relieved – of their guilt, and of the self-obsession which was their sin, and, perhaps, of some portion of gravity. They begin to dance. They leap up into the air. They become higher beings. The choir joins them on stage, and they join in song. They clap their hands; some of the congregation joins in. And then they take their bows. Church is out.
Playwright Lee obviously has no truck with Aristotle; there is no rising or falling action, no darkest moment, no climax or resolution. She gives us a slice of life. To do so, she has invented a religion which she could probably take to market, somewhere – especially with such excellent representatives. You get to watch it. You can watch it as a believer, or as a pathologist, or as a little bit of both.
Forum Theatre’s production of Church has a limited run, along with 9 other productions, as part of the Over the Line Festival thru July 29 at Round House Silver Spring, 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, MD.
Details and tickets
By Young Jean Lee
Produced by Forum Theatre
Directed by Michael Dove
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running time: 1 hour without intermission