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The Christians

At the Steppenwolf (Downstairs) theater

By Dan Zeff

 

Chicago –“The Christians” at the Steppenwolf theater takes a serious look at Christianity today in the United States. The playwright is Lucas Hnath, one of the most stimulating young playwrights on the contemporary American theater scene. In “The Christians,” Hnath explores a whole palette of theological issues, especially the nature of faith and how religion can divide as well as unite people of good will who wind up on opposing sides of a basic religious question. And Hnath accomplishes his exploration into the nature of faith without taking sides, forcing the audience it make its own call on the weighty matters at hand.

        For this production, the Steppenwolf stage has been converted into the worship area of a large evangelical church in an unnamed American city. A small choir periodically delivers gospel hymns. The audience is witnessing a worship service, supervised by the congregation leader, Pastor Paul. The play begins uneventfully with the pastor conversationally opening his weekly sermon. There is nothing new in his comments until he comes to his central point. While attending a church conference in Florida, he heard a missionary describing how a teenage boy in a Middle Eastern country dashed into a burning grocery store to save his younger sister. She survived but her brother died of his burns. The missionary stated sorrowfully that because the young man was not a saved Christian, he was eternally damned to Hell, however selflessly he gave his life for another.

Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

      The missionary’s address disturbed the pastor, and after a dialogue with God that night (while the pastor was sitting on the toilet), he came to the conclusion that church policy would no longer accept the idea of Hell or damnation. The pastor’s statement is a bombshell for the congregation, who believed in the concepts of Heaven and Hell and eternal salvation and eternal damnation as cornerstones of their faith.

        The pastor tried to explain that the idea of Hell in the Bible was based on a translation error and did not mean what the church had been teaching for generations. The pastor’s explanation may have been sound scholarship but for many members of the congregation it is abstract wordplay and too great a leap for congregants who wondered why people should be good if there was no punishment to guide their decisions in life. How justifiable is a religious doctrine that would admit someone like Adolf Hitler to Heaven because there is no Hell?

        The pastor’s revisionist theology splits the congregation, its opponents led by the young associate pastor, who likes and admires the pastor but interprets the burning death of the teenager as “a message that our work is not done, and that we need to not be complacent in these dark end days.”

The pastor never wavers in his dismissal of Hell as valid theology, and soon learns there is a price to pay for such a radical departure from church orthodoxy. Parishioners gradually leave the congregation, unwilling or unable to accept the pastor’s premise. A choir member and church congregant makes a sincere and moving public plea to the pastor to reconsider the Hell issue. She is a simple, impoverished woman whose faith in tradition is the spiritual roadmap of her life.

        There is an implied accusation that the pastor withheld his pronouncement until after the expensive church building was paid for by donations from members who might not be as forthcoming in their financial support had the pastor made his announcement before all the bills were paid. The controversy filters into the pastor’s marriage to a loving and thoughtful woman who is disturbed by her husband’s unilateral decision to reject Hell. The pastor’s stand ultimately may cost him both his pulpit and his domestic peace.

     The portrayal of really pious religious feeling isn’t much seen these days in American plays, TV shows, or movies. Piety is often ridiculed or bathed in fierce hellfire and damnation that allows a audience not steeped in belief to look on these issues with a patronizing air. But the people in “The Christians” are not backwoods rubes or foaming-at-the-mouth zealots. They are people at an audience-high level who take life and death and eternity seriously. There is no shouting in the play, no rudeness, put plenty of pain and unhappiness. The argument between Pastor Paul and the associate pastor is a high stakes spiritual debate conducted with civility and sincerity but not compromise.

 

                                       Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

Hnath shifts his dramaturgy between a live religious service and private discussions between the pastor and the four other characters with speaking roles. Pastor Paul sometimes serves as a kind of master of ceremonies, recounting to the audience events of the past. The shifts in time can be a little distracting but the flow of the narrative remains unbroken and accessible throughout.

        Tom Irwin delivers a bravura performance as Pastor Paul. The beginning of his sermon marks the pastor as a warm and likable man. Once he states the abolition of Hell from his church’s teaching, he is quietly surprised at the resistance it receives from his congregation, led by the assistant pastor. Pastor Paul is perplexed and bemused but unshaken as he sees his personal and professional life undermined by a doctrinal adjustment he thought would be welcomed as a spiritual liberation. It’s a performance of tremendous emotional nuance and control, Irwin’s countenance gradually eroded with sorrow and perplexity as his world collapses.

        Glen Davis is terrific in his few scenes as the assistant pastor, a young man from a lower economic and social background from the pastor and a man who believes in the orthodoxy of Hell as a bedrock of his spiritual existence. Jacqueline Williams has the audience holding its breath while she delivers her congregant’s cry from the heart to the pastor. Robert Breuler has an effective cameo as the church elder who can’t match theological wits with the pastor but apologetically yet firmly questions the propriety of his dismissing Hell from church policy. As the pastor’s wife, Shannon Cochran sits on the stage calmly for the entire play until she rises up to confront her husband with her doubts and resentments.

        K. Todd Freeman’s direction sustains the subtle but increasingly intense flow of the narrative. Under his perceptive guidance, every performance, however brief, is a bull’s-eye. Walt Spangler designed the credible church set. Nan Cibula-Jenkins is the costume designer, Scott Zielinski the lighting designer, and Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen the co-sound designers.

        The play is an announced 80 minutes in length but patrons are advised to be in their seats at least 10 minutes before the formal beginning of the show so they can enjoy a short concert of religious music from the on stage choir of Charlie Strater, Faith Howard, Mary-Margaret Roberts, Jazelle Morriss, and especially Jacqueline Williams and Yando Lopez. Jaret Landon is the musical director and keyboardist and Leonard Maddox Jr. is the percussionist. They all really rock.

        “The Christians” raises matters that invite examination whether the audience members are devout or casual believers, or maybe claim no beliefs at all. The play is well conceived and written, impeccably acted, and intriguing in the questions it serves up to the viewer. A post-show discussion is held immediately following each performance and I suspect they will be well attended, and the give-and-take animated.

        “The Christians” runs through January 29 at the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 North Halsted Street. Most performances are Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday at 3 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 to $89. Call 312 335 1650 or visit www.steppenwolf.org.

              -The show gets a rating of 3½ stars.-

Contact Dan at: ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com .              December 2016

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