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HT Review: The Christians

Review: A drama for churchgoers and church abstainers sparkles at Cardinal Stage

By Connie Shakalis
October 19, 2018


During Cardinal Stage’s current play, which seems like a cross (no pun intended) between a church sermon and a Socratic dialog, I was transported, Thursday night, to my many discussions with my Methodist mother.

Ever intrigued by the mysteries of religion, I had at age 4 confusedly combined God, Jesus and Santa Claus into one white-bearded avuncular gentleman. As years passed, and I began to somewhat understand the differences among these three, I peppered my poor mom with theology queries.

Lucas Hnath’s serious, thought-tingling play “The Christians” tells the story of a church in conflict, as most churches are from time to time. In this case, Pastor Paul (James Krag) has changed his mind about a fundamental Christian belief, the existence — and anticipated punishment — of hell. Maybe he has doubted hell all along, but this loaded announcement on the very day this huge church (there exists a coffee shop and bookstore in its vestibule) has finally paid off its mortgage raises eyebrows and ire.

And, as in many churches, there is a clash of opinion, which leads to contention. Associate Pastor Joshua (Liam Castellan) believes in hell and argues publicly with Pastor Paul in a Socratic exchange of questions.

(Ancient philosopher Plato was Socrates’ student and close comrade; Plato wrote the Socratic dialogues, with Socrates as the lead. Socrates’ intellectual rivals resented his technique of reaching answers by mutual open-questioning, and he was forced to commit suicide supposedly for not believing in certain gods and for corrupting the youth with sacrilege.)

In a sense, Hnath has Pastor Paul commit figurative suicide when Paul openly imparts his beliefs to the entire congregation. Paul had erroneously believed, perhaps due to his unconscious — or conscious — feelings of “magnificence” (so says his wife, Elizabeth, played by Shannon O’Connor Starks), that the congregants would agree and applaud him.

Uh oh. Have you been a church member recently?

Hnath grew up attending church and reportedly heard many conversations like Paul’s, Joshua’s and Elizabeth’s throughout his childhood. He, however, goes out of his way not to air his own views, or for that matter, make any proclamations.

The play’s last line says it all, as Paul tells his shocked, sad and angry wife that it will all make sense later. And we suppose it will. We will close our eyes that last time, and as Joshua detailed to Paul about his, Joshua’s, dying atheist mother’s parting words, “I will see black.”

Or, we, as Paul wants to believe, will see an “unimaginable” paradise so glorious that no living human mind can conjure up an image of it.

Kristen Martino’s set seemed so real that it was hard to resist bowing my head for prayer. The wooden, lighted cross, the pulpit, the stained glass, the real choir — they’re all there creating a memorable Sunday morning effect.

By the way, thank goodness for these volunteer choir members who are donating their talents: the play is heavy, and their beautiful harmonies add lightness. Their early number “I’ve Got Peace Like a River” foreshadows the fact that indeed they do not.

One flaw only — many of Thursday night’s choir members looked bored, and I couldn’t believe (except for Becky Underwood and a couple of others) that they were observing this dynamic. Having sung in many choirs, I know the bonds that form among the singers and that they would have been communicating, even surreptitiously, during these hot discussions.

And after all, the play is about communicating. See what happens when you communicate to your Libertarian mother that you are a Socialist, or try telling your best “friend” you are voting against her political favorite. Poor Paul even stands to lose his adored Elizabeth once she discovers his hell denial.

“I don’t want to think something different from what I think now,” she tells Paul, in tears. “Oh, no,” I thought. We humans can be narrow.

As Pastor Paul, Krag is realistic; I’ve known men like him, and his condescending smile as he argues with Joshua, the elder (Ken Ganza) and congregant Jenny (Emily Goodson) evoked memories. Krag shows us several sides of the minister — doubter, believer, frightened husband, beleaguered churchman. Castellan is a heart-rending Joshua; I felt so sad for him, because I believed he was suffering with his conscience and his loyalty to Paul, who is also his boss.

Starks moved me as Paul’s wife and showed her good acting range from coy to outraged. As the single mother and confrontational choir member, Goodson cogently reminded me that many people straddle the divide between paying their bills and tithing to their church. As the elder, Ganza seemed sincere, concerned about both the church (“We have our necks on the line in a way you don’t”) and Paul’s future.

Cardinal Stage’s artistic director Kate Galvin directed this winner.

The man next to me had a clever idea: “I was expecting a collection plate to be passed around.” Nice; maybe they will?