Friday, April 11, 2014

The true believer

Photo: Michael Brosilow
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Who: Actors Theatre of Louisville
What: The Christians by Lucas Hnath
When: March 4 – April 6, 2014
Where: 38th Humana Festival of New American Plays

When the lights come up on Lucas Hnath’s compelling idea-rich drama “The Christians,” the Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Pamela Brown auditorium is instantly transformed into the sanctuary of a typical Christian mega-church, complete with video screens, an organ, and a choir. 

In front of the choir is a pulpit and five chairs, each with a microphone and stand.  All the action will take place in this space, and all of the dialog will be delivered into those microphones.  This, for the playwright, is a way of emphasizing the fact that a preacher's life is "constantly on public display.  The moment you make a mistake, people are very hard on you."

As the play begins, the members of the choir file in and launch into Jennie Wilson’s upbeat hymn “Hold to God’s Unchanging Hand.” The title will prove to be ironic.  Paul (Andrew Garman), the church’s pastor, is about to preach a sermon that proposes a fundamental shift in his congregation’s philosophy.  Like the apostle Paul, he has changed his mind in a radical way.  As the repercussions of that sermon play out over the next 75 minutes, it becomes clear that doctrinal change can be a very dangerous business.

The sermon starts innocently enough.  Paul talks about how the church has grown from its humble storefront origins to an organization with a congregation of thousands, classrooms for Sunday School, a coffee shop in the lobby, and a baptismal font as big as a swimming pool.  Better yet, the church has finally paid off its building loans, thanks to the generosity of its members.  But there's a problem.

"There's a crack in the foundation of this church," he warns.  "And I'm not talking about the building. I'm talking about something like Isaiah talks about, Isaiah 30 verses 12 and 13 'Because you have rejected this word' 'this word' that's God's word he's talking about 'And relied on oppression and depended on deceit, this sin will become for you like a high wall, cracked and bulging'."  Mending that crack, though, will involve abandoning what other members of the congregation—most notably assistant pastor Joshua (Larry Powell)—regard as a fundamental tenet of their faith.

Paul and Joshua debate their differences in front of the congregation and while their argument is courteous enough, their beliefs are irreconcilable.  Paul forces a vote by the congregation, which Joshua loses badly.  He leaves the church, slowly and sadly exiting offstage.  But, like his Biblical namesake, he will return to tear down some walls.

The vote doesn't take place on stage.  Like most of the action of the play, it happens offstage and the characters tell us about it.  What happens onstage is a series of arguments between Paul and those close to him—his wife Eilzabeth (Linda Powell), a church elder named Jay (Richard Henzel), Joshua, and choir member Jenn (Emily Donahoe) who has questions about Paul's new/old theology that he can't adequately answer.  That might sound like a recipe for a play that will be more didactic than dramatic, but Mr. Hnath (whose "Death Tax" so impressed me back at the 2012 festival) is too good a writer for that.  His characters are so well drawn and his refusal to take sides is so scrupulous that those exchanges crackle with energy and passion.

As the play progresses, Paul's problems multiply.  Ultimately, he finds himself asking the question which far too many believers seem to ignore: how do you know where your beliefs really come from?  Is that voice in your head God's, Satan's, or just an echo of your own? "I believe what I believe because I know it is true," Paul says towards the end of the play, "but why do I know it's true?—it's a feeling. 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?" 

To say that "The Christians" is thought provoking is to praise it inadequately.  The philosophical and spiritual questions raised by this meticulously written and dramatically gripping play generated lively discussions among our party.  As I prepared to write this review today, my wife and I found ourselves coming back to many of the ideas in the play’s intellectually rich script.  It was one of the best plays I've seen anywhere in recent years.

The performances by the fine Actors Theatre cast did full justice to Mr. Hnath’s dialog.  They were completely comfortable with the microphones, using them as extensions of their bodies, and were fully invested in their characters.  Even the members of the choir were distinct individuals, sketching diverse personalities in the way they sang and in their reactions to the debates on stage.

Les Waters's direction made good use of the space, especially during the confrontation between Paul and his wife.  As Paul paced around on the carpeted dais downstage of the chairs, swinging his microphone cord, you could see him taking on his public persona and shutting her out.  The show was well paced and, despite its argument-counterargument structure, never felt static.

Will "The Christians" have a life beyond Humana?  It certainly deserves one.  Smaller companies might have to finesse the choir, but on the whole it should be well within the capabilities of most groups.  Congratulations to Actors Theatre and the festival for continuing to give us smart, well-crafted scripts like this one.

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