BWW Reviews: Hnath's THE CHRISTIANS Poses Big Questions in Humana Festival
Anyone who has heard even the faintest rumble of bombs dropping in the culture wars might hear a personal alarm go off just hearing the name of "The Christians," Lucas Hnath's entry in the 2014 Humana Festival of New American Plays.
At a time when the role of religion in every facet of life is mired in controversy and the battleground seems miles wide and inches deep, Hnath's play plants the audience squarely in the thick of the battle and leaves them pondering a lot, and maybe wanting a bit more.
The action opens on a Sunday morning in a typical modern (ambiguously) Protestant megachurch. The choir is in full voice, and the soft-spoken, charmingly awkward pastor (Andrew Garman) launches into a sermon that begins with typical church business - finances, folksy anecdotes, heaven and hell- but suddenly makes a hard swerve. The pastor announces a fundamental change in his beliefs and, as would logically follow, the instruction and leadership he will provide the church. Can the church endure a radical doctrinal shift, noble as it may be, and survive? Can the pastor's relationships - with his flock, the other church leaders, those he personally saved, his own family - survive? What is the cost of true faith? Is it worth it?
These are the questions Hnath puts forth in his intense 90-minute one-act. Under the sure-handed direction of Actors Theatre Artistic Director Les Waters, Hnath's script receives an utterly engrossing staging so strong in its verisimilitude that many attendees bowed their heads at each call for prayer before reminding themselves that this is, in fact, just a play. Scenic designer Dane Laffrey creates a down-to-the-detail perfect state-of-the-art sanctuary and Connie Furr Soloman's costuming is spot-on.
Anyone who recently saw Waters' production of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" will be familiar with his understated style. He masterfully puts in place elements that don't overstate their points and lets the audience react as they will. It's a refreshing approach in its simplicity.
He imbues the five main characters with a confidence to let the "church" PA system do the heavy work of projection. The characters maintain a matter-of-face conversational style that descends to fierce whispering as they struggle to maintain control. They observe painfully long pauses at key moments that reflect the difficulty - often impossibility - of finding answers to huge questions.
Andrew Garman does fine work as the pastor. That he maintains a singular upbeat note that can transmogrify so thoroughly in its perception over the course of the play - he seems by turns naïve, monstrous, transcendent, horrifically irresponsible, noble, pitiful and more all by simply being consistent - is a testament to his investment in the character and the strength of Hnath's writing.
Regular attendees at Actors Theatre will recognize Larry Powell from his powerhouse performance as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from last year's "The Mountaintop." He succeeds with subtler notes here. Though set up as the antagonist of the piece, Hnath does the character and Biblical fundamentalism the credit of grounding and exploring the most ardent of beliefs. When he says he takes no joy in believing there is a hell and that the man who saved him from it is headed there, you believe him and respect him.
Linda Powell provides equal conviction and conflict in the pastor's wife. Hnath provides her with incredibly complex ideas and emotions which she embodies expertly. Emily Donahoe also finds a great balance of struggle as well as some humor as a parishioner whose faith is so new that she must ask complex questions by reading off a sheet, yet so earnest and necessary that she poses a challenge the pastor is not quite able to overcome. Kudos also to Waters for putting even more local faces on the big stage at our internationally recognized regional theatre.
Hnath has put forth a script that succeeds in probing with depth and breadth some of the most polarizing contemporary issues. The challenge - not necessarily a weakness, because it is purposeful and achieves its goal - is that the script is all questions and very few answers. Theater fans used to resolution will find "The Christians" a maddening experience, though that is a testament to how well-realized this play is.
Being a premiere, there is still the potential for polishing. Not all elements of the script work; for example, a bit too much is made of the pastor's narration of his own story, making it unnecessarily more than it needs to be. But for a play so attuned to an ongoing conflict, it should be exciting to see what places Hnath takes "The Christians" if he so desires.
"The Christians" runs through April 6. For tickets, showtimes and more information, go to www.actorstheatre.org.