Sometimes it’s really hard
to really know
which voice is God
and which one is your own wishful self.
Dallas — In Lucas Hnath’s mindful and muscular play The Christians, we are startled for once by the old, not the new, by an idea known well to ancient Greeks and medieval Christians: that there are strong structural and emotional parallels between church and theater, sanctuary and stage—and between the soul-searching of spiritual life and the agon (struggle) of drama. This regional premiere from Dallas Theater Center at the Kalita Humphreys Theater uses ancient forms to follow a modern crisis, as a band of firm believers, certain of their certainties, find the earth shifting under their feet in the one place that is literally their “sanctuary” and comfort: the church.
Specifically, in the American mega-church, which today holds about one in every 10 Protestant churchgoers in this country.
Hnath’s ability to connect us to Pastor Paul (Chamblee Ferguson) and his congregation—considering all the baggage, for good or ill, carried into the theater by a diverse audience of competing beliefs and faith traditions—is a witness to his skill as a playwright. Christians, judged “the finest of the bunch” by Times critic Charles Isherwood at 2014’s Humana Festival of New Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisiville, has a way of disarming and persuading us to withhold judgment and allow the arguments of the story to flow from characters who aren’t cartoons, but living, feeling and thinking religious men and women.
Hnath’s work (Death Tax, Isaac’s Eye) has always had a cerebral, observant quality—but The Christians strikes what feels like a more humane balance of head and heart. Hnath grew up “in the church,” the son of a woman who became a minister. And while he won’t talk about the current state of his belief (or un-), clearly he has those congregations in his bones that are at once family, enterprise, social service agency, and genesis of every possible human emotion.
The church Pastor Paul founded with a few followers 20 years ago is now a giant, with “a parking lot so big you could get yourself lost in it….” And on this day of jubilee, a day that finds the thriving congregation paying off its last loan to become debt-free, Paul has something to say and a new challenge to issue, this time not about money, but faith.
His sermon will set the people around him at odds, both at church, where Associate Pastor Joshua (Steven Michael Walters), Elder Jay (Tyrees Allen) and a fragile-seeming young congregant (Lindsay Ryan) respond to his words very differently, and on the domestic front where his own wife (Christiana Clark) will struggle with his pronouncement. Can this “one body” Paul prays for at the start of his sermon stay together if they discover not everyone holds fast to the same core beliefs? It’s a dilemma that resonates in the current national climate, where too many families are dreading the dinner table at the next family gathering. Civil war—even a war of words—isn’t pretty.
Hnath plays with our own certainties of perception, drawing us initially toward or away from each character, then revealing them in different, more layered light. Ferguson is soft-spoken but passionate as Paul, who hears God’s voice challenging him to accept a new way of thinking about the binary heaven-hell worldview of the church. It’s this new way that threatens and angers Joshua (Walters is intense as a character who is difficult to like, but hard to write off) who came to the church as a lost young man and is Paul’s “spiritual son.” The two men are set in contrast: Joshua’s visions are of punishment for sin and “dark end days,” Paul’s of a brighter, more unified here-on-earth. Ferguson isn’t type-cast for the role—not the forceful, self-confident megachurch star we might have imagined. But his reserved, self-contained manner makes the revelation of his inner turmoil—and motives that might not be as pure as he’d like—feel all the more wrenching.
Allen gives bedrock, heart-felt strength to Elder Jay, a business owner committed to Paul and the Church who sees the human dynamic of the congregation more clearly than his pastor. Both women characters grow from a beginning that seems perilously traditional and submissive: Ryan as the young mother whose questions become more and more pointed, and Clark as the perfect pastor’s wife, who gives a fierce performance that begins in seated silence and ends in complete control of the play’s last moments. Somewhere between those two points, this church lady finds quite a voice.
Designer Bob Lavallee’s masterful, ethereally light-toned set design, a harmonic play of circles and crosses, evokes both church and amphitheatre. A choir (of more than two dozen singers from around the area led by music director Vonda K. Bowling) fills the back curve of the onstage church. Christians is crowded with hymns, some with surprisingly pointed lyrics: “I wish somebody’s soul would /catch on fire….” But do we want that, really? In a settled community of Christians or any other sect, “those” people can make life surprisingly uncomfortable for everyone else.
Director Joel Ferrell subtly stresses the Greek-play structure: two “agonists” (pro- and anti-) in dialogue within the circle as subsidiary characters (and a chorus!) watch and comment on the central action. He never lets formalism overwhelm the personal nature of conversations between pastor and protégé, husband and wife, elder advisor and younger head. Yet the style adds a particular gravity to the proceedings: the actors speak into handheld or stand microphones, which makes every kind of exchange feel more “public”—heightening the potential for success or failure, opening the struggle to our witness and judgment as an audience.
Chamblee Ferguson’s intricate portrayal of Pastor Paul’s tangled spirituality is the beating heart of this memorable play, sure to spark plenty of on-the-way-home conversation. This is a man who truly believes God is love—and loving in a way that stands above man-made religious laws and encompasses a mercy we can’t imagine. “I want a God who doesn’t think like a man, who isn’t as small-minded as I am,” says Paul. He sees Christians and non-Christians as one human family, and laments the barriers we put between us:
“The distance is you. It’s me. It’s all of us. We put the distance there. When we shun our neighbors, when we judge our friends, when we look down at people from other places and other religions, we create an insurmountable distance where there is no distance at all.”
The DTC has scheduled several “stay late” sessions with actors and local clergy—a great opportunity to learn more and have a chance to discuss issues raised in The Christians. You’ll find a day-by-day “Shows & Events” calendar on the company’s website: www.dallastheatercenter.org.