One of playwright Lucas Hnath’s many strengths is his ability to write ambiguous conflicts that elicit reactions that are anything but ambivalent. His new play “The Christians” is set squarely in the culture of the American evangelical Protestant church, but the questions it raises (and refuses to answer patly) resonate beyond — how do we know what we believe and why we believe it? And who are we, and what can we expect from others, if we change our minds?
“The Christians” is the second play to open in the 38th Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville. Directed by Actors Theatre artistic director Les Waters, the play runs through April 6 in the Pamela Brown Auditorium.
In “The Christians,” the pastor of a large nondenominational church drops a theological bombshell on his congregation, church leadership and his wife during a sermon in four parts. During this sermon, his motivations and own foundations of faith are questioned, and his personal and professional relationships begin to fray.
Set in the sanctuary of a newer Protestant church, attending this play feels a bit like eavesdropping on a church service that has gone horribly wrong in the most fascinating way. Remove the crosses from Dane Laffrey’s cheerfully bland set, with its generic stock photography of doves in mid-flight and tasteful blonde wood, and you’d see an upscale shopping mall dais and podium instead of a church chancel and pulpit. It looks new and expensive and attractively blank, but when the choir, composed of local singers and conducted by musical director Scott Anthony, file in and begin to sing, the church comes to life.
Seated in front of the choir are four church officials — the pastor (Andrew Garman, who originated the role of disgraced pastor Will in Samuel D. Hunter’s “A Bright New Boise,” another recent, acclaimed and not un-sympathetic exploration of the contemporary American evangelical church), his wife (Linda Powell), his associate pastor (Larry Powell, who also played Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in this season’s “The Mountaintop”) and a church elder (Richard Henzel) — each on his or her own sumptuous chair. Each chair has its own microphone, through which the characters address each other and the congregation (the audience). This slick, well-produced setup is at once casual and self-consciously formal, as the microphones are both intimate and alienating — when the actors break with the mic and address each other directly, especially in the case of a congregant (Emily Donahoe) who makes a powerful testimonial, the sound of their diminished voices is incredibly moving.
All of the action happens on this narrow strip of the chancel in front of the choir, anchored by a pulpit on one end, and so the play’s structure carries strict limitations on how the story can be told. The pastor has some important news for his congregation — the church’s building debt has finally been settled, and he has had a very radical, passionate change of heart on an extremely foundational point of theology and will henceforth be leading the flock in this new direction. A schism happens almost immediately when the equally-passionate associate pastor decides that he can’t follow.
At times the physical limitations of the set constrain how Hnath tells his story, necessitating some passages of talky exposition on the role of the church board, the organization’s finances and liabilities, and the associate pastor’s history, staged as though the characters were speaking to one another in front of the congregation. But each actor deftly navigates those fine lines their characters walk between official performative persona and real person, fears and doubts included. In many ways, this is Garman’s play, but in his scenes with Donahoe, Linda Powell and Larry Powell, each offered up the heart of the play with no question— not the pastor’s zeal of the renewed, but the heartbreaking fragility of the newly-shaken.
Ultimately, “The Christians” (which runs about 80 minutes with no intermission) struggles with big questions of salvation and grace without ever definitively delivering a writer’s verdict. And so this is a play that people of faiths of all stripes, as well as nonbelievers, can engage with on a meaningful level. Those who sympathize at first with the pastor’s change of heart might find themselves questioning his motivations and his expectations by the end. On the way out of the Pamela Brown on Friday night, I overheard patrons debating the theological points the play raises with an interest and urgency that affirmed both Hnath’s approach to telling this particular story and the power, in general, of storytelling on stage.