These are days of holy observances. The celebration of Easter and the solemn sorrow of Good Friday have just passed. The rites of Passover soon will be observed. The beliefs inherent in these times have called for and will call for ideas, thoughts, concepts. Interpretations proliferate.
Playwright Lucas Hnath goes there in his insightful and provocative play The Christians now superbly revealed at Bluebarn Theatre, played with depth by a worthy cast and directed with solid insight by Susan Clement-Toberer.
Do not be misled by the title. This is not an Elmer Gantry-like look at evangelistic excesses. Certainly, it is about Christian people. Yet, the questions raised and the issues explored could apply to many kinds of faiths. You will find much there to stimulate your mind, much to ponder, even if you are not an adherent of any religion.
As you well know, such words as above: “holy,” “beliefs,” “Christian,” “faiths,” “religion” reverberate with multiple ramifications. Hnath stimulates you to come away thinking about such complexities.
The essence of how and where he gets you there spins off from an emerging schism in a middle-America kind of church, one of an unspecified denomination in an unspecified city. Irrelevant details. Along the way are complex thoughts about the natures of heaven and hell, the meaning of sin and the concept of goodness.
Pastor Paul has had a revelation. He’s so inspired that he wants to spread the good news to his congregation. In doing so, he finds the foundations upon which his church is built become unsteady. Associate Pastor Joshua leaves off battling, taking followers with him. Church Elder Jay and the church board struggle with uncertainty. Pastor Paul’s wife re-examines their relationship and her role in it. And economically needy congregant Jenny finds herself awash in emotional distress.
Background: Hnath grew up in an evangelical church, his mother a minister. He went to Christian elementary and middle schools, helped in youth ministry and went to seminary classes. He knows the heart of his subject.
You may ask why he came up with this. His “Playwright’s Perspective” in the program has well-written insights as to what may be at the core, while still encouraging the audience to draw its own conclusions. “The essence comes down to making this point,” he observes, “a church is a place where people go to see something that is very difficult to see.” also having said that it’s OK to not understand. As for Hnath’s own position regarding the major question which emerges, the one around which this microcosmic upheaval revolves, he says “I refuse to answer.” FYI: http://newdramatists.org/lucas-hnath
His script calls for a symbolically resonant setting. Amid the church’s upscale, polished wooden walls and gleaming screen projections, the 80-minute play’s principal people, wielding cord- trailing microphones, often address the audience as if a congregation. Even when there are private conversations, the audience attends, suggesting that there be no secrets within this community and none before God. Every so often, a capable choir testifies with song.
The cast remains entirely convincing, even though constrained, never able to detach themselves from electronics...a reflection on modern life?. Everything about this non-realistic concept feels real. Credit director Clement-Toberer for that and for the pace, which gives the principals breathing space to look inside themselves, to confront the introspection which moves them to go where they need to be. Especially telling is how the excellent Anthony Clark-Kaczmarek pauses at times, as if Pastor Paul is seeking to find his own truth and confront any doubts. The tempo benefits the audience, a time to consider what’s heard.
The portrayal always makes it clear that the church leader is a genuinely good man, but a human one. A man of reason rather than one displaying deep feelings, even if he says that he has them. Raydell Cordell III well gets across equal sincerity as Associate Pastor Joshua, although the way Hnath has written him, much more could be done to make Joshua dynamic. Despite talk about feelings, the only openly emotional portrayal belongs to Jenny (Kaitlyn McClincy) who tellingly gets across Congregant Jenny’s sorrowful confusion. You could want to reach out and hold her. No one in her church does. Is Hnath saying that these Christians lack love?
You needn’t be religious to be stimulated by what transpires on the Bluebarn stage. As the intelligent ideas keep coming, stimulation enough for multitudes is possible. One loaf of bread can be divided many ways. The impressive service makes it so.
The Christians is performed through Apr.17 at Blue Barn Theatre, 1106 South 10th St. Thurs.-Sat.: 7:30 p.m., Sun. : 6 p.m. Tickets: $25-$30. www.bluebarn.org