By Lucas Hnath. Directed by Sarah Rodgers. At Pacific Theatre on Friday, September 15. Continues until October 7
The Christians depicts a community divided—but unless you’re a particular type of believer, it might be hard to buy into its central conflict.
“What happens when you tell a congregation they don’t need to believe?” That’s exactly what Pastor Paul does when he gives a sermon to his flock on the day that they’re celebrating having paid off the debt on their megachurch. Paul has had an epiphany, and he’s uncomfortable excluding non-Christians from God’s love. “We are no longer a congregation that believes in Hell, that says ‘My way is the only way,’ ’’ Pastor Paul announces. “We are no longer that kind of church.”
But this “radical change” doesn’t go over well with everyone. Associate Pastor Joshua argues with Pastor Paul on theological grounds, eventually leaving to form his own church. Elder Jay represents the board’s business concerns: if the numbers go down, so do the revenues. Congregant Jenny brings up ethical questions: why did Paul wait until the debt was paid off to give his sermon? Has she—and have her considerable tithes—been used? Even Paul’s wife, Elizabeth, can’t unconditionally support him.
The church setting animates director Sarah Rodgers’s production. The opening moments are exuberance itself: a 15-person choir sings and sways to some rousing hymns, and congregants hang on Pastor Paul’s sermon and its slick visual projections. But the energy drops once the schism takes over.
Part of the problem is Lucas Hnath’s convention of using hand-held microphones for all the dialogue; in Rodgers’s program notes, she cites his contention that “dialogue is far more interesting spoken into a mic.” Hmm. Not with lines like, “I feel so alone because where you are is so different from where I am” or “Why do I believe what I believe? I believe because of the feeling.” Microphones make sense in the pulpit, but they are no substitute for poetry and subtext.
But Rodgers and her cast make this curious text mostly work. Tré Cotten as Joshua, Allan Morgan as Jay, Erin Ormond as Elizabeth, and newcomer Mariam Barry as Jenny all bring heart and conviction to their debates with the pastor, played with calm certainty by an understated Ron Reed.
Stancil Campbell’s set features pews on one side and a platform for the choir on the other, each backed by crosses handsomely lit by Itai Erdal, managing to evoke a big church in the venue’s tiny church basement. Choir director Lonnie Delisle and his rotating lineup of choristers deserve huge credit for delivering the show’s opening excitement. I just wish the drama were sustained.