|Anthony Fusco & the Cast of "The Christians"|
But as it turns out, Pastor Paul has a revelation about who is actually heaven-bound, and his description is not exactly whom his devout parishioners are expecting to see at the pearly gates. His surprise is to become no less a devastating earthquake for him and his congregation than events contained in the Bible he holds so tightly in his hand. Suddenly, Mr. Hnath’s play leaves a simulated revival meeting and enters a new realm full of thought-provoking but somewhat unsettling questions for all those on the stage -- and for those of us in the audience.
Anthony Fusco is a natural as the preaching Pastor Paul. There is no sense of a memorized script as his spoken words appear to emerge from deeply founded beliefs and personal experiences. His moving recall of a story he heard about a brother heroically saving his sister from a terrorist’s firebomb in a far-off, African town is chilling and tear-producing. But when his sermon surprise begins to split the congregation in half (and as his half get smaller and smaller), Mr. Fusco’s character takes on more nuanced, darker aspects, raising doubts about the true motivation for his theological shifts along with side questions about his male-centric attitudes and his own sense of over-inflated ego.
|Lance Gardener & Anthony Fusco|
Stephanie Prentice is Sister Elizabeth, Pastor Paul’s wife and fellow church leader, and is at first seemingly loyal and supportive to her husband through her silent, rock-like presence -- no matter what surprises he has for his faithful flock (or for her). However, she too begins to shatter his ego-induced beliefs that all will blindly follow him. Ms. Prentice is steely calm and determined as she sets her own course of action apart from the direction of her husband, still leaving no doubt of her love for him in eyes and clinched hands reflecting a broken heart.
|Anthony Fusco & Warren David Keith|
While this ensemble of actors backed by the choir behind them quite naturally and convincingly lead us in a religious service and then through its subsequent maze of aftermath events, there are elements of the script that are puzzlers. Minutes after Assistant Joshua confronts Pastor Paul in front of the supposed thousands sitting in the sanctuary, there is a vote taken in which everyone is supposed to write one name or the other of the two ministers on “any slip of paper you can find” to indicate who should lead going forward. Really? The fate of this mega-church (and mega-business) is about to be decided on a quickly assembled set of hand-written ballots? Not only did I chuckle to myself at this (especially as the former president of a large congregation), the pause that occurs while we all wait for the vote’s results left me as an audience member wanting to ask the wonderful choir to sing another number during the non-action, pregnant interim (the choir being all talented volunteers, by the way, from San Francisco’s First Unitarian Universalist Church).
|Anthony Fusco & Stephanie Prentice|
What does it mean to believe versus to know? How can we trust our own inner voices when it comes to religious and moral faith versus needing/wanting some higher authority to speak to us and confirm we are on the right track? Is it possible to have drastically different views of religion and still co-exist in the same four walls – of a church or a home? When does a belief cross the boundary to fanaticism, and who defines a fanatic?
These are only a few of the many questions that the ninety minutes of Lucas Hnath’s The Christians raises. When placed in the hands of San Francisco Playhouse’s able cast and the always-creative direction of Bill English, The Christians is a play hard to let go of as it continues to fodder further discussion and debate long after attending.
Rating: 4 E
The Christians continues through March 11, 2017 at San Francisco Playhouse’s main stage, 450 Post Street. Tickets are available at http://sfplayhouse.org/ or by calling the box office at 415-677-9596.
Photos by Jessica Palopoli