Review: THE CHRISTIANS at Out Of Pocket Productions

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By: Jan. 15, 2024
Review: THE CHRISTIANS at Out Of Pocket Productions

One of the things I love so much about theatre as an art form is that it comes in such vastly different shapes and sizes. A theatergoer can find themselves in a 15,000-person arena with pyrotechnics, or in the basement of a bar featuring one haggard performer. Lucas Hnath’s “The Christians” certainly isn’t the former, but it’s not quite the latter either. It’s a small, intimate play that still manages to capture the feel of one of the biggest venues imaginable—the Evangelical megachurch. Its themes and presentation, however, are more reminiscent of plays like “Freud’s Last Session” or Cormac McCarthy’s “The Sunset Limited”, short one-acts that delve deep into a theme, or into the psyche of its characters. It’s one of my favorite kinds of theatre.

“The Christian’s” is a 2015 play by Lucas Hnath. Synopsis: In just ten years, Pastor Paul (Jeff Siuda)’s modest ministry has grown into a massive megachurch, with thousands of believers coming through its doors each week. After having just paid a large debt, Pastor Paul begins a Sunday sermon with what sounds like a soothing boilerplate, “Dear Lord, bring us together today, bring us together in our hearts and souls and minds.” But he soon reveals that his call for solidarity comes from a place of greater urgency. After much thought, contemplation, and study, Paul announces in his sermon that it will no longer be church policy to believe in hell. A debate occurs between him and one of his Associate pastors, and eventually, the church splits between those who agree with Pastor Paul, and those who agree with Joshua (Tom Bigongiari), his associate pastor.

Despite the bevy of impressive pieces of this production—the supporting characters, the pace, and the overall evangelical vibes that they cultivate so well—Jeff Siuda’s lead performance is what makes this production such a rare theatrical experience. One might think Siuda moonlights as an evangelical pastor after seeing him perform this role; everything from his manner of speaking to his hand gestures to his oratory style smacks of Joel Osteen or Jerry Falwell. Siuda’s extended interactions with his congregants, his wife, and his associate pastor are magnetic, pulling in the audience’s attention through his authenticity and the genuine connection he establishes with his castmates. A lesser actor would bloviate and over-act when tasked with embodying a megachurch pastor who are, at their worst and most cliched, bombastic showmen trying to swindle people out of their money. Siuda is nuanced, sincere, and emotional, giving the role exactly what it demands at exactly the right moments.

 “The Christians” is a rarity, in that it explores a polarizing world—evangelicals and their ultra-conservative beliefs—in a way that doesn’t take a side. “The Christians” doesn’t (for lack of a better word) preach or persuade, criticize, or try to draw sympathy. I left the MuCCC feeling neither pity for nor anger toward Siuda’s Pastor. This neutrality was intentional, as playwright Lucas Hnath has himself avoided taking a side when it comes to organized religion and his beliefs, aside from the conceit that “The Christians” is based on his evangelical upbringing. Rather, the play explores faith, tolerance, and the unbearable social toll of changing one’s mind. Having grown up in a religious household not unlike the one presented in “The Christians”, I definitely have my own thoughts about evangelical Christianity and its adherents, but those feelings were neither heightened nor diminished after seeing this brilliantly written and performed piece of theatre.

OOP’s production of “The Christians” is intensely thought-provoking and a fascinating exploration of timely themes, featuring an impressive cast helmed by Jeff Siuda who is doing the best work I’ve seen him do on stage to date. It’s playing until January 20th, for tickets and more information click here.