BWW Review: Theatre Artists Studio Presents THE CHRISTIANS ~ Truth Meets Consequences In The Church Of The Holy Double-Cross
A wunderkind among contemporary playwrights, Lucas Hnath, a child (ironically) of the evangelical church, unleashed his mighty talent to craft THE CHRISTIANS, a hard poke at the foundations of fundamentalism. First produced in 2014 at the Humana Festival of New American Plays, the award-winning work is an honest, forthright, and provocative exploration of the tension between faith and reason ~ a tension that permeates and convulses today's cultural divide in America.
Now (at Theatre Artists Studio through February 9th), under the astute direction of Richard Powers Hardt, THE CHRISTIANS packs its intended punch and resonates with the same relevance as when it was first presented.
In a sermon that appears initially to be a celebration of his church's accomplishments (it has grown exponentially and is now free of debt), Pastor Paul (played with steady and steely determination by Tom Koelbel) deals a jaw-dropping blow to his loyal congregants' convictions.
Pastor Paul has had the congregation in the palm of his hands as he extols the virtues of his church, but he loses his firm and uncontested grip when he shares an earth-shaking epiphany. He has been compelled to reconsider a basic (and cruel) tenet of his faith. He tells the story of a boy fatally burned after saving his sister from a raging fire only to be consigned by his fellow true believers to another fiery hell because the boy is not a Christian.
The sermon ends with a radical reinterpretation of scripture and Christ's intention...and a radical reframing of the church's mission. His will no longer be a congregation that believes in Hell and damnation of "the unsaved" or that its way is the only way. Its purpose must now be to breach the seemingly insurmountable barriers of communication that divide us in the hell that is here on earth.
Paul's conversion divides the congregation. There are profound and naively unintended consequences to his honesty.
Joshua (an earnest an compelling Jacob Nichols), his associate pastor and devoted mentee, is thunderstruck by Paul's turn of mind, and, after a riveting duel of textual interpretations, realizes that he can no longer be affiliated with the church.
Elder Jay (Charles Sowder), a trusted member of the church board, offers support but frets about the implications for the organization's new found solvency as half the congregants have left the fold.
Paul's dutiful wife Elizabeth (portrayed with a stirring sense of sorrow by Jessica Fishell) is shocked that he has never shared his insight before now.
Paul's righteousness is called into question as Congregant Jenny (the ever-natural Alexandra Utpadel) appears, offering a testimonial to his vision that dramatically morphs into accusation: Why now this revelation, when, the church has finally become debt-free? Why not before? Did Paul deceive and withhold his truth until the congregants' contributions were fully tapped?
For Pastor Paul, his truth has its consequences. His daring to ask what gains a church if it becomes solvent but loses its soul has consequences. His bold attempt to challenge the assumptions of blind faith with inspired reason has its consequences. In the end, he may stand alone, true to his convictions but bearing his own self-made cross.
(Also appearing ~ Andy Gorman as the choir director)
THE CHRISTIANS runs through February 9th at The Studio in Scottsdale, AZ.
Photo credit to Mark Gluckman ~ L to R: Jacob Nichols and Tom Koelbel
Theatre Artists Studio ~ www.thestudiophx.org ~ 12406 N. Paradise Village Parkway East, Scottsdale, AZ ~ 602-765-0120