Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Christians and the Challenge of Belief

The Christians
By Lucas Hnath
San Francisco Playhouse
January 24-March 11
Reviewed by Christine Okon

The Christians Drama Lucas Hnath
Are you a religious person?”

“Well, I don’t go to church, but I’m a spiritual person” is a familiar answer.

You don’t have to be Christian, Muslim, Jewish, atheist or “prefer not to answer” to have your thinking provoked by The Christians, a play by Lucas Hnath, currently at San Francisco Playhouse until March 11.
Entering the theater, we are pulled into a world of simple, honest worship: multicolored stained glass, a crafted wood podium, and a jubilant choir (First Unitarian Universalist Society) singing a hand-clapping hymn that engages the audience before the play even begins. Bill English’s set design, with Michael Oesch’s strategic lighting, create a spare but soothing space for what’s to come.
The church service begins in jubilant song.
A confident, well-coiffed woman (a warm and composed Stephanie Prentice) takes the mike and begins to regale the crowd with the story of how a small storefront gathering of believers grew into a place of worship big enough to hold hundreds and hundreds of the faithful, and how this miracle is due to the man who started it all, her wonderful husband, Pastor Paul.

A man with a broad, genuine smile sprints to the front and takes the stage. It’s Pastor Paul (a humble and likable Anthony Fusco) who cheers and rouses the flock to celebrate the fact that the last mortgage for the church is finally paid. Paul introduces his team, Associate Pastor Joshua (Lance Garner) and Church Elder Jay (Warren David Keith, a subtle steadfast accountant) who provide a balance that is soon skewed. The church didn’t grow magically; heavy financial realities hum underneath like an engine under the sounds of joy above.
Pastor Paul bringing the good news.
Paul launches into a sermon that begins like any other, how great and well the Lord is, how blessed we all are, his preaching answered by the happy smiles, nods, and a-mens of his faithful family.

Then he starts to tell a personal story that begins well enough but soon works to disturb and confuse the congregation.  It’s story of love and compassion for people who are not like us but who have nonetheless suffered; are they not children of God? Can a non-Christian go to heaven? Can someone who committed horrible sins, like Hitler, be saved? What is heaven? Does Hell even exist? Such thinking goes against the if-then-else belief that if you are a good Christian, you will go to heaven and if not, you go to purgatory, or hell. How frightening for the congregation to have this premise of faith shaken!

Paul’s new path of belief creates a fissure in the congregation. Congregant Jenny (Millie Brooks) steps forward during a service to speak her heart to Pastor Paul: she’s a good Christian woman with a family who has lived by the Word of the Lord all these years, and she cannot comprehend the expansive, foreign belief that Paul is on. She departs, as does the more traditional Associate Joshua, who has been engaging in an ongoing and intractable dialectic with Paul about truth, faith, and consequences.
Congregant Jenny speaks her heart about Paul's direction
Nothing is reconciled, and there Paul remains, alone in the desert, choosing spirit over structure, freedom instead of rules. But it is a decision he needed to make: to choose right over rote.
The Christians stirs the inner dialog and struggle we all may have when our foundation of belief—God or no—is rocked, and it will start a conversation that goes on after you leave the theater.


The Christians
By Lucas Hnath
SF Playhouse
January 24th to March 11th, 2017
Director: Bill English
Set Design: Bill English
Lighting Design:  Michael Oesch
Sound Design: Theodore J.H. Hulkser
Costume Designer: Tatjana Jessee
Music Directors: Tania Johnson, Mark Sumner
Choir Conductors: Tania Johnson, Mark Sumner, Bill Ganz, Louis Lagalantes

Cast: Anthony Fusco (Pastor Paul); Stephanie Prentice (Elizabeth, the wife); Lance Gardner (Associate Pastor Joshua); Warren David Keith (Elder Jay); Millie Brooks (Congregant Jenny).


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