As a queer pagan, anxiety gripped my guts at the idea of viewing a play called “The Christians,” lauded by critics as an examination of the definition of faith. My experiences of Christianity have not been entirely positive — a reflection that many LGBTQ people can share to some degree. Although LGBTQ issues were not directly discussed in the play (a possibility I’d honestly feared, given the triggering nature of those discussions), the questions raised are relatable to virtually anyone, with or without religious practice.
Playwright Lucas Hnath’s “The Christians” found its home in the pristine, intimate setting of rented space at Blumenthal Performing Arts’ Booth Playhouse. Produced by The Playworks Group, in association with The Pine Hill Project, director Steve Umberger leads the way for shows running Wednesday-Sunday until Oct. 1, with two performances every Saturday.
The story takes place in a “megachurch,” beginning on the day that the congregation’s enormous building has been fully paid off. On that day, head Pastor Paul encourages his flock to address a different kind of debt: what duties true Christians owe to humanity at large. Paul’s dilemma seems a dichotomous choice that many people of faith undertake; should the different be condemned, or redeemed? Is Hell a literal place of punishment, or are all sinners redeemed regardless of conversion or repentance?
Although these are the central questions that characters directly ask themselves and one another, other conflicts spring to mind throughout the show. What is the relationship between similarity and love? Why does humanity insist on perpetuating hierarchies, claiming a faction as “the one true” and others as aliens or “the fallen?” How does anyone entirely know themselves and their beliefs, separate from cultural context?
As the congregation of thousands fractures and disintegrates around Paul’s revelation, the vast majority of the play’s action comes in the form of direct dialogue. Although characters speak with eloquence and emotion, one technique Hnath used in his script was a bit off-putting — yet, perhaps, purposefully so.
Throughout Pastor Paul’s dialogue, he narrates the interactions with interjections of “he said,” “I said,” and “she said.” Initially, that quirk of composition hit me as unnecessary and even clumsy…until I discussed it with my guest of the evening, theatre veteran and my father, Frank Dominguez. Dad pointed me towards the concept of “Brechtian alienation,” through which playwrights deliberately distance viewers from the world onstage. The purpose of this is to encourage the audience not to be swept up in the story, but to reflect on its relevance to themselves.
In that sense, both Hnath’s writing and the technical team who designed Blumenthal’s depiction were faithful to the goal: make the audience think. Instead of dynamic, shifting sets and multitudinous props, there were few distractions from the words and emotions actors portrayed.
Although the setting was subtle, it was by no means minimal. In particular, creative lighting lent emotional weight to the scenes. A tall wooden cross at center stage was backlit in a gentle, ethereal blue, as if illustrating the serenity that many find in that symbol of sacrifice. As conflict seeped into the church community, so did hotter colors begin to tint the curtained background into the regal purple associated with spirituality and suffering.
Spiritual suffering is front and center in the play, as two key actors vividly portrayed in different ways. Actor Brian Robinson’s Pastor Paul had the emphatic voice of a TV evangelical, with his emotions ringing loud and clear through his tone, enunciation and breath. Although the early Pastor Paul had a virtually unreadable face, Robinson made Paul’s introspective journey come to life throughout the play as the character’s facial expressions opened up — until at last, the strong, unmovable leader is brought to tears.
Next to Robinson’s Paul, actor Jonavan Adams’ portrayal of Associate Pastor Joshua had a striking emotional impact. As the two leaders clash ideologically, Joshua’s face positively vibrated with tension from his internal struggle. Although his character is an antagonist of sorts, the actor’s interpretation ensured that the audience would not fail to see his humanity, his sincerity and his pain.
For me personally, the absolute best part of “The Christians” was the supporting choir. Full of powerful voices and hair-raisingly emotive notes, I was reminded of why gospel music has immortal appeal even apart from devoutly Christian audiences. As for the bearded soloist of two particularly memorable hymns: if you’re into women, call me, hon. That voice had the depth and dynamism of Jesse L. Martin (forever my Broadway crush). Enough said.
The cast and crew have the ability to make or break any play, and it was clear that the Blumenthal’s team made this one. Although the action itself was neither energetic nor visually engaging, it did not lessen the play’s impact. LGBTQ Christians — and former Christians — will find compelling questions for conversation and introspection. For audiences like me, with a lack of interest in “Jesus talk,” the message may be different:
Despite dogmatic restriction, individual spirituality and reflection are the true foundation of faith.
Even those who have been taught to condemn are capable of questioning and reimagining their concept of God, and of themselves.
No distance is insurmountable.