The sacred and the profane duke it out astride a megachurch altar in The Christians, Lucas Hnath’s acclaimed play dramatizing present-day doctrinal dispute that casts an earth-shattering fault line through the church congregation. A deeply considered, clear-eyed examination of faith and politics, The Christians opens PURE Theatre’s 14th season with a song and a prayer — not to mention an absorbing front-pew view of the complexities of modern religion.
A seismic schism in a Christian church is a topic curiously close to home for many of Sunday’s best in South Carolina. In a much-covered flap a few short years ago, the Episcopal Diocese voted to part ways with the national church, mainly over its stance on same-sex unions. During the split, leadership, parish property, and heated factions came into play, like the fall-out of a messy divorce in a town still small enough to make it awkward for all involved. The Christians will likely dredge it all up for those on one side or other of that so-called “Anglican realignment,” as well as for anyone who remains conflicted about the outcome.
At the sticky center of the play’s controversy is a Sunday sermon, which is unexpectedly dropped on the congregation by their pastor. The church’s founder, Pastor Paul has grown the church in a couple of decades from a modest storefront to a thousands-strong religious enterprise, complete with bookstore, coffee shop, and an outsize baptismal font that could rival Colonial Lake. In a lulling, incantatory cadence, their esteemed spiritual leader gently, amiably guides his devoted flock through a significant new twist in his belief system: There actually is no hell.
Of course, this is no small assertion to lob over the pulpit. Many folks in the room have been beating it each week to Sunday service and more, as well as handing over their hard-earned pay, as insurance against future fire and brimstone. What’s more, heaven is not quite the discriminating country club for which we’ve all been waitlisted.
Heathens with a heart of gold will also gain entrance. When questioned later, the pastor even concedes that infamous evildoers like Hitler are off the hook from eternal damnation. It goes to follow that in this new, all-embracing heaven, pretty much anyone could be next to us in line at the brunch buffet beyond.
With his denial of eternal damnation, all hell breaks loose for Pastor Paul. First, an associate pastor wages a mutiny, strategically picking off members to his newly formed church. More than one congregant reels and runs, and even more raise questions. A trustee lands on the pastor to stem the compromised attendance and finances. His wife gives him the stink eye. As each character reacts to the pastor’s proclamation, we see how our deeply personal religious beliefs are both shaped and challenged by the world around us. More troubling still is the suggestion that those beliefs that are not in lockstep with our own may be even more problematic when it comes to our individual salvation.
The production lays this down by situating its five players at the altar of a contemporary house of worship (the inspired, cleverly executed work of set designer Richard Heffner). Under a stylized stained glass cross that looms over the stage and into the audience, we are constantly reminded of the capaciousness of the church, while we sit in PURE’s compact black box. A microphone accompanies each altar seat, again telegraphing the size of the space, while also rendering our theater seats the best in church. With this staging, we are thus given a close up of a public fallout.
The delivery of the actors similarly straddles the public-private line, with the characters speaking mainly in the measured, reverent tones befitting church testimony, as they openly grapple with intimate beliefs. As Pastor Paul, Rodney Lee Rogers is a soulful and soul-searching spiritual compass, with sufficient ambiguity to allow for scrutiny of his own potentially less-than-lofty motivations. Brannen Daugherty creates a compelling counterpart in his associate pastor, a man of the cloth who may be less polished, but with a religious fervor seemingly free of guile. As the pastor’s wife, Joy Vandervort-Cobb convincingly questions, while Randy Neale’s elder character applies pressure. In a tender, affecting portrayal of a single mother congregant who is torn by the controversy, Mary Fishburne gives poignant voice to the many individuals for whom such fissures of faith can be cataclysmic.
In an essay written by the playwright on the website Playwrights Horizons, which produced the play in its NYC debut last year, Hnath reflects, “A church is a place where people go to see something that is very difficult to see. A place where the invisible is — at least for a moment — made visible. The theater can be that too.” Today’s discourse on religious tolerance is more often than not focused on disparities between entire belief systems. The Christians, however, encourages us to look more closely at something fundamental and all-important, even as many among us cast stones at other religious practices. And that something may well be hiding in plain sight, within the very walls of our own stained-glass house.
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