Theatre Review: Available Light’s The Christians is a Provocative Look at Faith and Pride
Available Light’s season ends with a bang and a headful of questions in Lucas Hnath’s The Christians, directed by Acacia Duncan. This is a hard play to write about because not only is it idea-dense, it’s hard to describe without recounting all of the events in more minute detail. I’m going to try not to give too much away.
The Christians stars Matt Hermes as Paul, a pastor in a Christian megachurch whose denomination is never revealed. On a day of celebration – the church is finally paid off and free of debt – he reveals a revelation that shakes up key tenets of what’s believed by his congregation and splinters his flock. The play is structured as a song and sermon meant to mimic this kind of church service followed by a series of increasingly fraught conversations with the people flanking the pastor on stage: Jordan Fehr as Associate Pastor Joshua, Michelle Schroeder as his wife Elizabeth, Ian Short as Elder Jay, and (seated right in front of the stage) Whitney Thomas Eads as Jennifer, a congregant.
Hnath’s play deals with the way people adapt or don’t to change and ultimately the human need everyone has to feel correct, the word right is the root of righteousness. It touches on how angry people can get when they’re told they’re wrong, when they’re told they’ve been wrong all this time and no one bothered to tell them. It can feel very damaging and very personal when the ground you’ve built your life and your family’s life on might not be as solid as you were led to believe. This is most pointed in the two scenes with Jordan Fehr as Associate Pastor Joshua, who shows inexperience in his initial objections being easily parried in a semantic chess match with Hermes’ Paul but rallies in his return to show a side of morality and ethics and forthrightness while also detailing the human side of how much a fear of death can motivate people, how we’re shaped for better or worse, or usually both, by our upbringing. This second confrontation is dazzling to watch, Hermes depicting a place of abject regret and Fehr cracking, almost vibrating with rage but still willing to give chances.
There’s also a fascinating undercurrent discussion of privilege inherent in the play. In all Pastor Paul’s questioning and questing for a deeper truth about the world and his faith, there’s a sense that he hasn’t examined many things he takes for granted. He’s taken for granted the support of the board who have the staff’s payroll, operating costs, legal liabilities that they signed up for because they believed in him and believed in the good that he’s doing, and while he’s been insulated from that, it’s a real concern that has real, human consequences – given an aching, human voice through Ian Short’s nuanced performance as Elder Jay, head of the church’s board and a longtime friend.
The privilege of his position is thrown into sharp relief through a harrowing testimonial from congregant Jennifer played brilliantly by Whitney Thomas Eads who believes in forgiveness for all until she tries to envision specifics. She brings up the “convenient” timing of his revelation and, echoing the scene with Short, the real financial hardship paying for this church has caused many congregants but, more than that, feels she jeopardizes her son’s spiritual well-being. Watching the pastor’s tone-deaf attempts to placate her is cringe-inducing and pitch perfect, as conversational and earnest and sincere as he is, there’s a gap in understanding that can’t quite be bridged and the audience is enough in Hermes’ corner by that scene that it’s almost painful to watch.
The third strain of privilege discussed, male privilege, suffuses everything in The Christians. Early Paul draws an oblique comparison to knowing his flock of congregants with meeting his wife, a note on an airplane that said “I have a powerful urge to communicate with you but I find the distance between us insurmountable.” He calls that meeting “so easy you might call it grace.” Both those sentiments echo when we discover he didn’t bring up this sea change with his wife. Michelle Schroeder’s performance here is heartbreaking – I was literally in tears as she delivered her conflicted, unfurling heartbreak, as moving a portrait of what happens when ideals don’t match the love you have for someone.
There’s a final soliloquy from Hermes that questions the place of Christianity in the world, acknowledging the role his family upbringing had in his faith but coming down on the side of belief – his questions and his loneliness lead him deeper into God, as he sees God, not further away. The Christians is a very modern look at the Christ-like path as a path of loneliness and isolation paradoxically born out of love for the world. It’s a beautifully crafted almost-apologia that tries to give weight to the others’ objections.
It’s not a perfect play. Throughout, Hermes’ Paul says “He says” or “She said” punctuating others’ speeches – it’s distracting, it throws the out of the moment and forcefully underlines both the character’s isolation and echoes “preacher speak” in a way that feels condescending. Similarly, the first hints of schism, the initial confrontation between Paul and Joshua, feels like it’s stacking the deck, it gives an ugly undercurrent of bullying: the older, wiser man mocking what the younger, brasher man doesn’t know and then shunning him, it’s too obvious and too broad given how much nuance is in the rest of the play.
What gets those weaker moments over is the uniform incredibly high standard of acting and Acacia Duncan’s perfect direction. In a little less than 90 minutes, Duncan sculpts with what silence she has, every pause and every bit of negative space is used beautifully – there’s so much material and so much poetry in the writing, she wisely resists the temptation to rush, the tempo is assured and rich. Dave Wallingford’s production manager and sound design work is perfect, drawing a contrast between the mic’ed up work of the sermons and the quieter, private moments, and his projects mirror the decay of the church in a beautiful, subtle way. Carrie Cox’s lighting is also fantastic, giving another look at the character’s internal landscapes and simultaneously grounding the audience in shifts of setting while using the same, sparse set.
The Christians is the kind of play that keeps me going to see theatre and I’d encourage anyone with an interest in theatre or the shifting tides of faith in the contemporary United States to see it.
The Christians runs through June 6 in the Studio One Theater of the Riffe Center. For tickets and more information visit AVLTheatre.com/shows/christians.