Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s Chicago premiere of Lucas Hnath’s THE CHRISTIANS is stunningly conceived and highly stylized. In a literal sense, Walt Spangler’s magnificent set captures the enormity of the megachurch in which the play is set—down to the opulent purple carpet—and enhanced by Scott Zielinski’s lighting design and Joseph A. Burke’s visually stimulating projections. But Hnath’s keen and effective playwriting is in itself also inherently theatrical—and sublimely delivered by the production’s ensemble. As the entirety of THE CHRISTIANS takes place inside this megachurch, the line deliveries are quite literally performative. The actors deliver the majority of their lines using hand-held microphones, which emphasizes that this play focuses on more formal, outward expression. The audience’s perspective is also filtered through the lens of the church’s Pastor Paul (Tom Irwin), who controls the play’s narrative.
These are genius devices in a play that concerns itself with themes of power and belief. As the head pastor, Paul wields tremendous influence on the church community—and many members seem to take his word on its face. Yet when Pastor Paul reveals to the congregation that he no longer believes in Hell, he raises a number of questions for the churchgoers. And with this set-up, Hnath also expertly lays out a number of questions for the audience. While as a pastor Paul must remain firm in his convictions in a very public platform, THE CHRISTIANS fundamentally poses to us the following: How is it that we come to believe what we believe? What happens when we may not be sure of what we believe but we are forced to express that tentativeness with utter conviction? And how do we co-exist with those we love and respect but who hold fundamentally irreconcilable beliefs? While in THE CHRISTIANS these questions are filtered through the lens of religion, the implications are wider reaching and incredibly timely.
As with his play HILLARY AND CLINTON, which had its Chicago premiere at Victory Gardens Theater last spring, Hnath also elegantly explores the divide between our public and our private lives. We see this especially in Paul’s relationship with his wife, Elizabeth (Shannon Cochran). In his sermon, Paul reveals that when he first encountered his wife on a flight he sent her a message through the flight attendant: “I have a powerful urge to communicate with you, but I find the distance between us insurmountable.” At this juncture in their relationship, Paul and Elizabeth find themselves bridging a different “insurmountable distance,” one that both reinforces the play’s themes and helps it form its emotional core. Irwin and Cochran both give fully realized, vulnerable performances.
While the characters in this play certainly put up facades, it is the actors’ vulnerabilities and willingness to give themselves fully to the roles that makes THE CHRISTIANS work. We see this also in congregant Jenny (Jacqueline Williams), who gives a haunting testimonial about how much the church community has meant to her but also how she finds it difficult to reconcile Pastor Paul’s beliefs with her own needs. Williams bestows so much raw emotion and weight to this speech. And we see this emotional profundity too with Associate Pastor Joshua (Glenn Davis) who does not agree with Pastor Paul’s newly declared beliefs. A late scene between Irwin and Davis in the play is immensely powerful. The ensemble does not miss a note, both performance-wise (kudos to Robert Breuler as the business-minded Elder Jay) and also because the rest of them function as an onstage choir (Faith Howard, Yando Lopez, Jazelle Morriss, Mary-Margaret Roberts, and Charlie Strater, also joined by Williams).
Hnath’s captivating play lasts only a swift 90-minutes. THE CHRISTIANS raised so many intriguing questions in that time and kept me rapt in my seat. And while it is a highly stylized play, it never feels artificial or inauthentic. Rather it is unapologetically theatrical and compelling and explores themes that are entirely of its moment. This is a straight-up beautiful play that will keep me pondering for a long time.
One final note: It’s definitely worth heading to the theater ten or so minutes early to catch the choir singing in their full glory before the play itself begins.
THE CHRISTIANS runs through January 29 at Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Tickets are $20-$89. Visit Steppenwolf.org to purchase.
Photo by Michael Brosilow
Read the original review on PerformInk.