BWW Review: THE CHRISTIANS: Come To Jesus At Chelsea Theatre Works
Written by Lucas Hnath, Directed by Brooks Reeves; Music Direction & Sound Design, David Reiffel; Stage Manager, Maurine Heberden; Assistant Stage Manager, Jaime Hernandez; Production Design, Danielle Fauteux Jacques; Set Construction, Joseph Dunn; Box Office Manager, Nina Weiss
CAST: Michael Poignand, Armando Rivera, Arthur Waldstein, Alison Meirowitz McCarthy, Christine Power; CHOIR: Elyse Brown, Doug Dulaney, Margaret Felice, Demetrius Fuller, Kaitlin Gjerdrum, Julia Kennedy, Amy Manion, Caryn May, Jamie Merkle, Kirsten Mulrenan, Ben Nissan, Jessica Richmond, Lisa Santagate, Masha Sten-Clanton, Vijaya Sundaram, Samuel James Zeiberg
Performances through March 9 at Apollinaire Theatre Company, Chelsea Theatre Works, 189 Winnisimmet Street, Chelsea, MA; Box Office 617-887-2336 or www.apollinairetheatre.com
The Christians by Lucas Hnath takes us into the world of an evangelical megachurch, a place that holds a certain amount of mystery for those of us who practice different religions or lack belief in any faith. Apollinaire Theatre Company and Director Brooks Reeves set the stage with a 16-voice choir, accompanied on the organ by their conductor, and a supersized wooden cross looming over them on the upstage wall. To create an ambience of authenticity, when the pastor and his associate make their entrance, they reach into the audience to shake hands and welcome us to the service while the choir rocks out on a processional hymn.
Pastor Paul (Michael Poignand) leads the congregation in prayer before launching into a lengthy sermon. He recounts the successful path the church has followed, building its membership and its wealth over a period of twenty years, and proudly announces that, as of this day, their debt is paid off. Associate Pastor Joshua (Armando Rivera), Elder Jay (Arthur Waldstein), and Paul's wife, Sister Elizabeth (Christine Power), are seated behind him, looking on with pride and admiration. Suddenly and unexpectedly, Paul shifts gears and recounts a story which has been the catalyst for a significant change in his belief system. He suggests that there is no Hell and proposes that the church adopt his new, more inclusive philosophy.
It is fair to say that this proclamation results in all hell breaking loose as Joshua speaks out against this blasphemy, challenging Paul to put it up for a vote among the congregants. The vast majority support Paul, but about 50 side with Joshua and choose to leave with him. Confident in his change of conscience and bolstered by the results of the poll, the first crack in his new foundation comes from Elder Jay. Although he reports that the board backs him, Jay makes a pitch for Paul to think about giving Joshua another chance. This marks a turning point in the drama, as push back increases and questions are raised from many corners that challenge Paul to defend his position.
Hnath chooses not to show gradual defections, but pulls one of the choir members, a congregant named Jenny (Alison Meirowitz McCarthy), to read a statement and seek answers to the problematic issues inherent in the pastor's unilateral action. Her "everywoman" persona really shines the spotlight on the harsh differences between the fundamentals of what the church previously stood for and the broader acceptance offered by the new philosophy. Perhaps most stunningly, it draws back the curtain on the idea that all evangelicals march in lockstep and have no diversity in their beliefs.
On the heels of the testimony from Jenny, the ultimate challenge comes from Elizabeth who was as surprised as everyone else by Paul's pronouncement. However, their conversation is the most fraught, as she sees it as a crisis for their marriage, as well as for their church. Hnath hones in on the power of faith as it pulls them apart and shakes them to their core, even as he illustrates the strength of their beliefs. Regardless of which side of the argument you come down on, one can relate to the consequences resulting from the choices made here.
Although I have not had the experience of attending an evangelical service, this production made me feel like I was in church. The rousing singing by the choir (directed by David Reiffel) and Poignand's "come to Jesus" performance of his sermon combine to authentically recreate how it must feel to be sitting in the congregation. (The fact that the speech goes on too long may add to the verisimilitude.) Poignand inhabits the character of the preacher, from connecting with the congregants, to making eye contact, to the tilt of his head when he listens to someone's point of view, to the earnest expression of his change of heart, to the gut-wrenching realization that he may lose his wife over this. In his scenes with Power (who doesn't have much to say beforehand), she comes into her own, no longer just gazing at him with adoration, but asserting who she is and what she believes.
Rivera is convincing as the younger man, molded by Paul but painfully determining the need to confront him and stand up for what he has been taught to believe. He is all righteous certainty, until he is not, and his change of heart is credible. McCarthy gives a strong impression of her character, initially showing her insecurity and her need for solid answers, but gradually gaining confidence and feeling empowered. Hnath doesn't give Elder Jay much to do, but Waldstein does as much as he can with the role when he tries to sway Paul's position on Joshua.
Artistic Director Danielle Fauteux Jacques has done a great job with the production's design, with a raised platform and choir area that evoke a church, as well as robes for the members of the choir. The lighting is effective, but unfortunately, on opening night, the hand-held microphones relied on by the principals were not operating. They could be heard most of the time, but there are some moments when Paul lowers his voice that were missed. (I have faith that the sound will be remedied.) The Christians shines a spotlight on a segment of society that wields great influence in our current political climate. Let us pray that the message of Pastor Paul May be taken to heart.
Photo credit: Danielle Fauteux Jacques (Michael Poignand, Christine Power)