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A game-changing schism over salvation and damnation in a megachurch with a baptismal font the size of swimming pool might sound ripe for parody, but there’s no making fun in Lucas Hnath’s “The Christians,” now at Theatre J. His characters are compassionately drawn and their spiritual crisis is handled with the utmost seriousness, making for a compelling work.
It’s Sunday service and Pastor Paul (out actor Michael Russotto) has good news to share with his thousands-strong congregation. After 20 years, the church they built from nothing has been paid off. Then his sermon takes an unexpected turn that’s less well-received.
Paul explains that two weeks earlier while attending a ministerial conference in Orlando, he heard a missionary speak about a teenage boy in a violence-riven country who ran into a burning grocery store to save his sister and subsequently died of his wounds. The missionary lamented that because the boy was not a saved Christian, he would be damned to eternal hell. Pastor Paul was uncomfortable with that notion. Later that night while sitting on the toilet, Paul had a conversation with God that convinced him everyone is welcome in heaven and that hell doesn’t exist.
Paul closes his sermon with the unequivocal statement, “We are no longer a congregation that believes in hell.” You’d think that might be a popular declaration, but for this evangelical population whose faith is built on fire and brimstone, the change is unsettling.
Associate Pastor Joshua (Justin Weaks) can’t understand how Paul can fling a tenant aside so casually, citing numerous Bible verses to support that hell is real. Paul chalks it up to a bad translation, pointing out that the Bible’s hell actually refers to a garbage dump outside of Jerusalem.
Church Elder Jay (Michael Willis) would prefer that Paul just leave well enough alone. Why rock the boat? Jenny (Annie Grier), a single mother who relies on the church for spiritual and worldly sustenance, is confused. She doesn’t want to leave her spiritual home but can’t understand a world where evildoers aren’t punished after death. And Paul’s seemingly adoring wife Elizabeth, played by the incredibly versatile Caroline Stefanie Clay, is angry that her husband didn’t confer with her before dropping this theological bombshell.
New York-based Hnath (pronounced nayth) has shared in interviews that he was brought up in an evangelical church and his mother was a minister. Where he stands on religion now, he doesn’t say. The 37-year-old playwright came to attention locally when his “Red Speedo” premiered at Studio Theatre several seasons ago. It’s about a dim Olympic hopeful who’s accused of using steroids. The production is remembered for Hnath’s bold approach to a much-discussed issue and Frank Boyd’s strong acting done entirely in the skimpy title garment.
Set designer Jonathan Dahm Robertson has transformed the Cecile Goldman Theatre into an anywhere USA megachurch. The four principles are seated on the altar in ostentatious chairs. We, the audience, are the congregation. The actors are backed by Jumbotron-like projections and speak using handheld microphones whether in public or private conversation.
To further the megachurch authenticity, a live choir opens the play and sings occasionally throughout the following 90 minutes. Different local choirs will be featured throughout the run. On opening night it was the Refreshing Spring Church of Cod in Christ’s amazing James E. Jordan, Jr. Choir led by Edward Ford.
In other productions, the choir backs the pastor. Here (probably due to space constraints), they’re in the intimate theater’s upper tier, so to the see the talented source of the glorious gospel tunes and celestial-sounding hymns requires some serious neck craning
Director Gregg Henry has assembled a top-notch cast. Russotto plays Pastor Paul with a gentle charisma, brilliantly bringing together both showmanship and an absolute integrity. Weaks gives a stunning turn as Joshua whose difficult life experience prohibits him from not believing in eternal damnation.
“The Christians” is a play about religion that is interesting to believers, non-believers and those in between.