What keeps our butts in the pews? Is it faith, fellowship, fear of hellfire, or infatuation with the charismatic preacher up at the pulpit?
Lucas Hnath’s play The Christians feistily examines religious beliefs and the role of leadership in the church in a soul and conscience-stirring production at Baltimore Center Stage under the sure direction of Hana S. Sharif.
The result often resembles a church service as you are alternately stirred by the spirit, lulled, challenged and sometimes discomfited. But you are never bored—this impassioned production never lets up the intellectual discourse or the vibrant depiction of a faith community questioning and testing itself.
The playwright is the son of an evangelical minister and because of his mother’s calling grew up in a large Florida church; his experience imbues The Christians with bracing candor and truth.
The play centers on a megachurch, one of those mall-like structures with a coffee shop, bookstore, gigantic parking lot, a warren of meeting rooms and a church that comfortably seats the multitudes. Scenic Designer Mike Carnahan and Lighting Designer Jen Schriever nail the sleek, modern expanses of an American megachurch, all neutral grays and silvers with a peach-pink neon cross smack tab in the middle of the altar (that sometimes changes to a celestial blue shade) and Jumbotron screens featuring images of rolling clouds and rays of light.
Amid this contemporary grandeur stands Pastor Paul (the quietly commanding Howard W. Overshown), the handsome and subtly magnetic leader of the church. Flanked by church Elder Jay (the upstanding and dignified Lawrence Clayton), associate Pastor Joshua (Adam Gerber, fiery and conflicted in the role), preacher’s wife Elizabeth (a regal, royally rankled Nikkole Salter) and a heavenly choir (the mighty Greater Baltimore Church of Christ Choir at my performance) on risers, Pastor Paul celebrates the good news.
Not just Christ’s message of salvation, but fiscal news that the church is finally paid off and out of debt. Before anyone can shout “Hallelujah!” Pastor Paul launches into his sermon, which drops the ecclesiastical bomb that God told him there is no hell or Satan. He preaches that his is a church without a hell or threat of eternal damnation.
This message infuriates Joshua, who came to faith through hardscrabble suffering. He challenges Pastor Paul through quoting scripture referencing hell, which Pastor Paul calmly refutes as a matter of scholarly interpretation.
closes October 8, 2017
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Pastor Paul’s sermon throws the megachurch into an uproar, naturally, as the parishioners and leaders question what exactly keeps them tied to the church when guilt and the ever-present devil’s temptations have been removed from its foundations. Belief systems clash and devoted worshippers, like the fretful Jenny (the excellently dithered Jessiee Datino) have major doubts. Even Paul’s loyal wife Elizabeth is shocked by her husband’s announcement and wonders what other thoughts and ideas he’s been keeping from her.
The religious discussion invigorates and the choir inspires, but there are some aspects to Pastor Paul’s message that are hard to wrap your mind around. For instance, his concept of heaven is that all are saved—Hitler and even the man who murdered your child are one big happy family up in the clouds strumming harps—was disturbing to contemplate. But then again, as Pastor Paul notes, God’s heaven is inconceivable to we mere mortals.
You also imagine The Christians is quite a different experience in Baltimore than in New York, where you can maintain a cooler intellectual distance. Here in Maryland, which was founded on religious freedom and tolerance, we tend to take religion personally. It is the fabric of many of our lives, the warp and woof of our day-to-day existence.
So much is at stake here—like in the play—when our beliefs are challenged and things like righteousness, superiority (the “My God is an awesome God” school of thought) and punishment are taken away or no longer deemed necessary. It is not just theory and discourse.
The Christians asks if faith, or the dictum that we follow in Christ’s footsteps and love all, are enough to keep a church and community together. Hnath does not provide easy answers, but provokes us into looking into what we believe and why.
The Christians by Lucas Hnath . Director: Hana S. Sharif. Featuring Lawrence Clayton, Jessiee Datino, Adam Gerber, Howard W. Overshown, Nikkole Salter, Danielle Teague-Daniels, Genevieve Ortiz. Scenic Designer: Mike Carnahan. Costume Designer: Michael Alan Stein. Lighting Designer: Jen Schriever. Projection Designer: Hana S. Kim. Production Dramaturg: Gavin Witt. Assistant Director: Tiffany Fulson. Produced by Baltimore Center Stage . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.
Choirs: Greater Baltimore Church of Christ Choir, New Psalmist Baptist Church Choir, The Community Choir of Baltimore Center Stage.