Wednesday, February 1, 2017

"The Christians"

The Christians
Lucas Hnath

Anthony Fusco & the Cast of "The Christians"
Eerily, it does immediately feel as if we are in a church rather than the San Francisco Playhouse that we thought we had entered (although maybe the glasses of wine many of us still have in our hands is a dead give-away of the true location).  Before us is another incredible, Bill-English-designed set that smacks of something seen when flipping the TV remote and landing on a mega-church service.  Light-colored, paneled walls are punctuated with deeply hued, stain-glass windows – one embedded with a huge cross -- and large video screens show soothing scenes of clouds, fields, and forests.  A sixteen-person choir enters in cross-embroidered robes and begins gently to sing and sway the hymn “Holding Onto God’s Unchanging Hand,’ soon followed by rhythmic clapping and testifying through their contagiously engaging voices, “Catch on Fire.”  By the time the Pastor steps forward to ask everyone to bow heads for prayer, I look sheepishly around the theatre audience to see if that means us, too.

Anthony Fusco
The evangelical realism of the church service continues for at least a few more minutes in San Francisco Playhouse’s production of Lucas Hnath’s 2015 Off-Broadway, much-acclaimed play, The Christians.  As Pastor Paul begins to introduce his four-part sermon (“Where Are We Today, A Powerful Urge, The Fires of Hell, A Radical Change”), it is difficult not to wonder if eventually we are going to hear a call for us as audience members to walk the aisles to be saved from damnation.  Everything is headed in that direction as we first listen to his pulsating preaching how this mega-church of thousands with its pool-size baptismal (and lobby coffee shop) is now debt-free and heaven-bound and then notice that his tone and demeanor is turning ever more serious toward that third subject, “The Fires of Hell.” 

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
Challenging the Pastor in front of the entire congregation that Sunday morning is his mentoree and Assistant Pastor, Joshua.  Lance Gardner is the bold, somewhat brash, young minister whose intensity of belief is visceral, sincere, and believable.  While he agrees with Pastor Paul’s conclusion that “There’s a crack in the foundation of this Church,” his view of what that crack is and who is causing it is wildly different from the senior minister’s.  With evangelist fervor and conviction, he is ready to push his own views to the edge of that crack, even if it means that the church he and Pastor Paul have together built from a storefront to a mega empire may come tumbling down like the walls of Jericho.

Millie Brooks
More unsettling confrontations of Pastor Paul’s new-found discoveries of what is truth and what is not come from two women, including a single-mother congregant whom he and the church helped get through difficult personal and financial times.  Millie Brooks, as choir member and congregant Jenny, begins her “testimony” from the pulpit with timid voice and almost child-like mannerisms as she speaks to the congregation and to the nearby, beaming, and proud Pastor Paul.  However, once she then pulls out a pre-written document and begins to raise question after question to the soon-sweating and clearly nervous Pastor – now facing him directly eye-to-eye -- her Jenny becomes a persistent prosecutor whose drilling inquiries have profound effects on all listening.

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
The character of Elder Jake, played with the quiet reserve and sagacity of age by Warren David Keith, opens up Mr. Hnath’s play beyond the warring dynamics of religious leaders and their congregations to include the realm of non-profit executive directors and their boards of directors.  His gentle efforts at coaching the head pastor -- so full of obvious affection based on their long past together in the boardroom and the family dining room -- is also full of words not spoken but ever-more evident in his lowered tone, his stiffening posture, and his troubled brow.  Anyone who has ever experienced board-executive dynamics immediately can relate and find totally credible his difficult position as both friend and foe.

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
There is also a constant use of hand-held microphones throughout the entire play, even in moments of husband/wife bedroom talk or in gripping moments of private confrontations between the Pastor and his Assistant.  Coupled with the Pastor often inserting “he said” or “she said” to introduce the next spoken piece by him or another character, the otherwise naturally flowing dialogues take on a staged, stilted feeling that is after a while, quite disrupting.  Maybe the playwright is trying to underscore some of the aspects of a televangelist always being in the public eye with nothing he thinks, says, or does being all that private in the long run.  Or maybe the inserted words that make this sound like a read-aloud story are to imply his own need for control of those around him or his own self-sense of omniscience.  Whatever the purpose, the devices detract more than enable the play’s message, in my opinion.

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 or by calling the box office at 415-677-9596.

Photos by Jessica Palopoli

No comments:

Post a Comment