Posts Tagged ‘the christians’

The Christians
by Lucas Hnath
Directed by Ellie Schwetye
West End Players Guild
December 4, 2022

Rachel Hanks, Joel Moses, Joseph Garner, Michael Byrd, Chrissie Watkins
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

The West End Players Guild has the ideal venue for their latest play. While their productions are usually presented in the basement of the Union Avenue Christian Church, their latest production is using the sanctuary. This is fitting, since Lucas Hnath’s The Christians is about a church, and the overall effect of this location creates something of an immersive experience for the audience, with the director, Ellie Schwetye acting as a greeter before the show, and taking “prayer requests” from attendees as they arrive. There’s also church music playing over the speakers before the show. It feels so much like a church service, in fact, that I accidentally referred to it as “the service” instead of “the play” to my husband after the show. The immersive quality adds a lot to he presentation, but the show itself–and especially this production with it’s excellent cast and direction–is compelling enough to stand on its own even without the extra “churchy” elements added by venue. 

The story begins in what appears to be a typical Sunday service at an unnamed non-denominational Evangelical megachurch. Pastor Paul (Joel Moses) is preaching a sermon that, at first, seems to mostly be about the history of the church and how much the congregation has grown over the past twenty years, and how the church has recently paid off the loan they took to build their current building. He then drops a bombshell, telling his congregation of a recent radical change in his theology, informing them that he no longer believes in the existence of hell, or that people with other religious beliefs can’t go to heaven. This causes something of an uproar in his congregation, first putting Paul at odds with Associate Pastor Joshua (Joseph Garner), and eventually with others in the church, represented by supportive but concerned Elder Jay (Michael Byrd), conflicted church member Jenny (Chrissie Watkins), and his own wife, Elizabeth (Rachel Hanks), who was surprised by the announcement and finds herself in a dilemma of her own as a result. 

Whether you’re familiar with church services or not, this show provides a lot to think about beyond the basic presentation, and the playwright has admirably presented the various “sides” with a reasonable degree of fairness. The dilemmas presented are real ones, and they are treated with due seriousness here. I had been half-expecting a parody, but that’s not at all what this is. It’s a straightforward drama that presents fully realized characters that all have their flaws and virtues–there are no caricatures here, which is refreshing. The issues presented could be talked about in a much longer essay, but I will focus on the production itself for the sake of brevity. Still, no matter what you believe about God, Christianity, or the concept of hell, this story is compelling, and sure to provoke much thought and discussion. Also, beyond the theological issues, there are issues of ethics raised by various situations, such as Paul’s decision to surprise his congregation, his staff, his elder board, and even his family with his change in belief. It’s a multi-layered, fascinating play, and it would take too long to cover all the issues it raises, although one importance aspect of theatre is to make audiences think, and this play certainly does that.

It’s a well-paced, impeccably cast play, with no weak links in the cast. All the performers turn in memorable, nuanced performances, led by Moses as Pastor Paul, ably portraying the character’s personal charisma along with a degree of self-focus and smugness, as well as an obvious concern for his congregation, and for his wife. Garner as Joshua is also memorable, delivering an emotional performance that is intense but not over-the-top.  Hanks has little to do but sit and react for the first half of the play or so, but when she finally does have a conversation with Paul, it packs a credible emotional punch. There are also strong performances from Watkins as the conflicted Jenny and Byrd as the increasingly concerned Elder Jay.

Technically, there isn’t an elaborate production because of the venue, with the use of a real church sanctuary negating the need for a constructed set. This sanctuary is equipped with theatrical seats and lighting, though, since it’s also the home of Union Avenue Opera. The lighting by Catherine Adams, and sound and projection design by director Schwetye contribute well to the overall mood and tone of the production. 

This is a play that, overall, seems designed to get people thinking, and talking–and this production is ideally staged to do just that. The issues brought up here are timely and relevant, and the performances grounded and credible. It’s an impressive, semi-immersive production.

Chrissie Watkins, Rachel Hanks, Joel Moses
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is presenting The Christians at Union Avenue Christian Church until December 11, 2022

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