Larry Powell & Andrew Garman in The Christians.
By Lucas Hnath
Directed by Les Waters
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2014 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
The evangelical Christian movement seems as powerful as ever, despite the claims, at least in certain media outlets, that the Christian faith is under attack. Lucas Hnath’s new play The Christians examines the damage done to one church not from outside forces, but as a result of an internecine conflict over a particular shift in the belief of one Pastor.
The stage in the Pamela Brown is transformed into a large-scale church of modern design (think Southeast Christian in Louisville) with the audience taking the position of a congregation. The opening minutes are occupied by a choir singing hymns before the Pastor (Andrew Garman), his Wife (Linda Powell), the Associate Pastor (Larry Powell), and an Elder of the church (Richard Henzel) ascend to the platform to take their positions facing the congregation in oversize wooden chairs with bright blue fabric padding. The set design by Dane Laffrey is nothing short of a triumph.
After the coir has finished, the Pastor delivers a sermon that marks the fact that the church has paid off all of its debt and offers the provocative observation that there is no Hell. It is a brilliant catalyst for conflict: a simple yet fundamental question about a bedrock principle of the faith, it also recognizes a resistance to inclusive progressive trends in so many modern Protestant churches. The idea also resonates with common criticism from outside Christianity, although the playwright is clearly not interested in seeing religion as such a soft and easy target. Eventually the conflict impacts the characters in a highly personal manner that begins to question the role of faith in their lives without abandoning it.
All of the characters speak with microphones, even during entirely personal one-on-one conversations, reflecting the reliance and self-aware attachment to electronic communication. Communication as a theme is given important attention, and the breakdown of relationships depicted here seems inextricably tied to the distancing effect of playing to the crowd with a microphone in your hand, as if statements only matter when spoken through a PA.
The device would seem to threaten to create a similar distance with the audience, but the outstanding performances follow the sly manner in which the script sets up a relationship to the audience with sensitive and intelligent work that connects beautifully. Andrew Garman perfectly captures the beatific, nearly oblivious quality of so many religious leaders who take their position for granted. Larry Powell, so masterful earlier in the season in The Mountaintop, is very effective in a more subdued role. Linda Powell as the Pastor’s wife rises to our attention in the second half by shifting the themes onto an intensely level. Richard Henzel is very good as the Elder of the church, but Emily Donahue is especially fine as a Congregant that initiates the most key and devastating challenge to the Pastor’s new idea.
Stories placed in such an overtly religious context can divide theatregoers, but The Christians walks a fine line by managing to be a drama that examines faith but that proves fulfilling wherever your beliefs position you in society.
Part of the 38th Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays
March 4 -April 6, 2014
Actors Theatre of Louisville
315 East Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202