Saturday, July 20, 2019

Theater Review: Lucas Hnath’s ‘The Christians,’ Presented by the Chautauqua Theater Co.

I had many qualms about buying tickets for The Christians when I was on vacation earlier this month. It was difficult to discern, from the brief description I read of the drama, if it would offer a skeptical and/or politically correct view of traditional Christian belief. 

Moreover, the uneven record of the Chautauqua Theater Co. and its penchant for unusual fare meant that I could not be sure if I would see something fascinating or something experimental strictly for its own sake.

To my relief, after sitting through 80 minutes of material that went by in a flash (and without an intermission), I could not have been more pleased by Lucas Hnath’s drama, which closed last weekend. At Chautauqua Institution—a lakeside Victorian community which originated as, in effect, a summer program for Sunday school teachers—theatergoers like me found an examination of faith searching in intellect and yet filled with not only emotion, but anguish.

The setting is contemporary—a rapidly expanding evangelical megachurch—but the conflict is as old as Protestantism itself: the clash between a minister who wants to reinterpret the Bible in a new manner and a congregation reluctant to go along with a vision that diverges from one of their core longstanding beliefs.

Toward the start of the sermon that begins his crisis, Pastor Paul recounts the handwritten note he used to introduce himself to his future wife on a plane: “I have this urge to communicate, but the distance between us is insurmountable.” 

The distance between him and his congregation, seemingly minuscule as he begins, widens considerable, as his desire to commit the church to rejecting the concept of hell is met first with consternation, then with outright opposition. In the process, Pastor Paul’s position and even his marriage is endangered.  

It would have been natural simply to depict Pastor Paul as a martyr to intolerance. But Hnath renders the conflict with full appreciation for the flawed but unmistakable humanity of both sides. 

While sincere in wanting to assure salvation to non-believers, Pastor Paul has also refrained from telling his church about his changing feelings about this subject until after fundraising for the building expansion project has been completed, and he uses the issue to force out Associate Pastor Joshua, whom he has come to regard as too conservative and youthfully impulsive. (In other words, as Paul’s wife bluntly puts it later, he has used intolerant means for a tolerant end.)

Director Taibi Magar used some nice touches to sharpen the conflict, including:

*featuring the Chautauqua Choir—a group accustomed to the kind of hymns used here—first as musical accompaniment, then later as a kind of silent “Greek chorus” to the events taking place;

*accentuating the discomfort of Paul’s listeners by having the choir walk out, single file, after one member confronts Paul;
*using Paul’s increasingly rumpled look to suggest the decline in his fortunes and, perhaps, his increasing lack of interest in worldly things.

As Pastor Paul, Jamison Jones carries the dramatic load with aplomb. He transfixes the audience in the opening monologue by modulating his tone, from heartiness to earnestness—and, by play’s end, to a supplication he never thought he’d face. 

The dilemma faced by Pastor Paul and his followers features what may be the most emotionally fraught war in Christendom: who deserves salvation?  Pastor Paul may begin on relatively safe ground by invoking the case of a blameless non-Christian, but he provokes many congregants by blurting out that even Hitler will not be denied Heaven by a forgiving deity.

Hnath’s script does not shy away from the undercurrents in Pastor Paul’s dispute. Before his attempt to change the church’s direction, for instance, he has not solicited his wife’s views or considered how it might affect their standing in the parish. 

Furthermore, he aims for an inclusive objective by resorting to exclusionary means. (In maneuvering out Associate Pastor Paul, for example, he argues for, in effect, a smaller but purer church—a stance that Pope Benedict XVI took in leading the Roman Catholic Church.)

The sympathy of Hnath lies overwhelmingly with Pastor Paul. But, in the manner of George Bernard Shaw, he does not shortchange the minister’s opponents, giving them dialogue and arguments that make their case with maximum effectiveness. 

That is particularly so with Associate Pastor Joshua, and Ricardy Fabre gives the younger man a charisma and conviction that make him a formidable, even dangerous, threat to Paul’s leadership. And as Paul’s wife, Stori Ayers—after spending of the first part of the play listening silently to the man she has followed, growing gradually more dismayed—performs similar wonders when she is finally allowed to vent her own feelings about the situation. 

I doubt that anybody at a performance of The Christians has come away without its thought-provoking recounting of different faith journeys continuing to reverberate for far longer after they leave Chautauqua’s Bratton Theater.

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