You are in Church. The magnificent voices of the choir (opening night was the Refreshing Spring Church of God in Christ James E. Jordan Jr. Choir) rise in song. You see them, in Theater J’s balconies, clapping, swaying, moving with the grace of God. They are in service (as all artists are) of something greater than themselves; something which moves them to praise and joy, and which gives them confidence to prevail in this imperfect world. It’s important to watch them, for they provide the key to what happens next.
Then Pastor Paul (Michael Russotto) and his wife, Elizabeth (Carolyn Stephanie Clay) stride into the room, shaking hands with their congregation (you, and other members of the audience) before mounting the altar, which is also the exceedingly shallow stage. Associate Pastor Joshua (Justin Weaks) and Jay, Chair of the Church Council of Elders (Michael Willis) are waiting for them. They sit on comfortable conference-room chairs; behind them, three two story high crucifixes radiate light. The altar is festooned with microphones; this is a big church, a huge church, and today will be a big day.
It is the day when the leaders of this enormous Church can announce that they have paid off their mortgage, and are free of debt. But there is even more monumental news: Pastor Paul has discovered, through his prayer and personal encounter with God, that there is no Satan, and no Hell. The loving grace of Jesus has stored up a place in Heaven for all of us.
Understand that for this Congregation, and for thousands like it across the world, there is no more consequential issue. To a person, they believe we are eternal creatures, whose personality will survive in some form even after the Sun becomes a tiny black hole. They believe that what we do in our eighty or so years on this planet will determine whether we spend eternity in joy or torment, and in this Church, they believe that the issue depends on whether you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior. (This thought finds some form of expression in most Protestant religions; Martin Luther, after all, said “sin, and sin boldly, but believe more boldly still.”)
The Pastor’s sermon shakes Associate Pastor Joshua, and the two of them have a nimble battle over the ambiguous words of the New Testament — a battle which Paul clearly wins.
“The whole play is a kind of sermon,” playwright Lucas Hnath has explained. “Sometimes it’s a literal sermon. Sometimes it’s made up of scenes that use the formal elements of a sermon. And as such, even the most private scene has a kind of declamatory, performative, sing-songy quality.”
Theater J hews closely to most of Hnath’s instruction. All of the action, even when Paul and Elizabeth are in bed together, is on the altar. The actors speak into the omnipresent microphones, which gives the production the air of a Pat Robertson PTL show gone horribly wrong.
But in one particular, Director Gregg Henry appears to have ignored the rules, to the advantage of the production. Every moment on stage displays real human beings, in conviction and crisis. Watch Clay as Pastor Paul describes, in his sermon, the day he first met Elizabeth. Her face breaks out into a huge smile, as Elizabeth realizes what he is about to say, and then contorts with tears as she remembers the day which gave her the rest of her life.
Or watch Annie Grier as the congregant Jenny, whose tearful challenge to Pastor Paul proves the tipping point for the play. She is everywoman; the single mother with limited resources, a fifth of which she gives to the Church. Sweaty and disheveled, she is terrified to come before the large congregation, loaded up with regret; this Church has been her home and salvation, and the place that gave her strength during her bleakest moments. Grier gives us all of that, and more: in her halting, inarticulate way, Jenny delivers the central dilemma of the play. She tells Paul that she cannot accept a heaven which welcomes Hitler, or would welcome someone who might kill her son. (Conversely, another character tells Paul that he cannot accept a Heaven which excludes his beloved, non-believing mother.)
closes December 11, 2016
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Russotto brings a wistful ache to Pastor Paul, as he has to other characters, notably to a member of an apocalyptic cult in Woolly’s A Bright New Boise and a six-hundred pound man in Rep Stage’s The Whale. It serves him well here, because any effort to understand God, or our place in the world, is prone to heartbreak.
There is no subject upon which we have less evidence than the afterlife, and as a result we depend on our private feelings to help us form our views. “I believe what I believe because I know it is true—but why do I know it’s true?—it’s a feeling,” Pastor Paul explains. “And where did that feeling come from?—God. God put it there—but how do I know it’s God that put it there?—I know it’s God because I believe God is there—but how do I know God is there?” The choir member believes he is channeling God’s love, which makes him clap and move, but how does he know?
It is a question no different than the one Hamlet asked about the ghost of his father (“The spirit that I have seen/May be the devil: and the devil hath power/To assume a pleasing shape.” II.2), and it is the centerpiece of the first American novel, Charles Brockton Brown’s “Wieland”, in which a mischievous guest uses his skills as a ventriloquist to convince his powerfully religious host that God wants him to kill a chicken, and inadvertently unleashes a deep psychosis which causes the man to believe God wants him to kill his son. Our feelings are a slender reed upon which to rest so consequential a decision, but they are all we have.
One final note. It may seem odd that a play which examines a crisis in Christian belief would find a home in one of the nation’s preeminent Jewish theaters. After all, a religion which insists that a person must confess Jesus as the Messiah would have little currency in a house where the overwhelming majority decidedly does not. Theater J Artistic Director Adam Immerwahr says this: “[The Christians is] a play about the connection between faith and belief — about how we come to hold onto, or to change, the fundamental understandings that underpin our spiritual convictions…The Christians may be the most Jewish play in our season.”
It may be the most universal one as well. Seen most broadly, The Christians shows the struggle of anyone who challenges the status quo, whether it is the corporate reformer, or the political leader who attempts to install fiscal discipline. In our fantasies — and in bad art — the change artist is always triumphant, but The Christians shows that he has a hard stubby row to hoe, even if his change is salvation for all us sinners.
The Christians by Lucas Hnath. directed by Gregg Henry. Featuring Caroline Stefanie Clay, Annie Grier, Michael Russotto, Justin Weaks and Michael Willis . Scenic and projection design by Jonathan Dahm Robertson . Costume design by Danielle Preston . Lighting design by Kyle Grant . Sound design by Patrick Calhoun . Stage manager Karen Currie, assisted by Jessica Soriano and Diane Schramke. On the night I watched, Robert Ford was the choir director. Produced by Theater . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.