THE CHRISTIANS: Trouble in Paradise
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
By: Virginia Rep/Cadence Theatre Company
At: Theatre Gym at Virginia Repertory Center, 114 W. Broad St., RVA 23220
Performances: February 10-March 4, 2018 (Previews February 8 & 9) Talk Back Sundays February 18 & 25 after the 2:00pm matinee
Ticket Prices: $10-35
Info: (804) 282-2620 or va-rep.org
There is no doubt why Lucas Hnath’s tightly knit tense drama is a part of the Acts of Faith Festival. Running an hour and a half with no intermission, The Christians chronicles the demise of a mega church while tackling issues of personal faith as well as the foundational doctrine of Pastor Paul and his unnamed mega church. A genuine church bulletin enclosed in the theater program welcomed us to Community Chapel and included all the information one might expect to find in a church bulletin other than, perhaps, an address and telephone number.
The day before attending Thursday evening’s performance, a friend told me that The Christians was just like going to church. He could not have been more right, and while it did not remind me of my church, or any specific church I have ever visited or worshipped in, the spirited band under the direction of John Winn, with vocals led by none other than Jessi Johnson, and Daniel Burgess’ detailed set with its stained-glass windows and gigantic cross would have made any evangelical feel right at home. The first minutes are interactive, with the audience encouraged to stand and clap along or even sing along as the lyrics are projected onto two large screens. (BTW – from whose church did they steal – I mean borrow – those high-backed pulpit chairs? They look familiar…)
Rousing music aside, The Christians tackles real and relevant issues that raise questions without providing any answers when Pastor Paul preaches a relatively short sermon that has long-reaching effects. He begins with the question, “Where Are We Today?” and concludes by suggesting “A Radical Change” that rocks the very foundation of his church, the individual congregants, and even his marriage. What happens when a senior pastor single-handedly decides to change the church’s creed? What is the role of a first lady, and where does being a pastor stop and being a husband begin? What, exactly is the responsibility of a pastor to his flock? How does a congregation know when God is speaking or when their pastor – a mere man – is speaking? And finally, is there/where is hell?
Bostin Christopher perfectly fits the bill as Pastor Paul, with his reassuring voice and modest demeanor. But his wife’s teasing mention of his magnificence gives us a hint of a possibly darker side, which Christopher occasionally allows to peek out from his puppy dog eyes. Brandon Carter as Associate Pastor Joshua, who dares to publicly question Pastor Paul’s sudden epiphany, is, in contrast, tightly contained and barely able to restrain his obvious passion. Both men are well cast and believable. Even their physical differences support their characters’ theologically opposite positions.
Addie Barnhart as Elizabeth, the Pastor’s Wife, sits silently for roughly the first half of the play, but if you glance her way during Pastor Paul’s sermon and subsequent debate, you can see that Barnhart isn’t dozing in her comfy chair, but allows her face to show that she is valiantly hiding a teaming sea of feelings. When she finally speaks, in a private pillow talk with Pastor Paul, she politely but firmly delivers one of the play’s most devastating blows. Barnhart’s makeup and church lady suit are also spot on. Bev Appleton is similarly conservative of demeanor while delivering precisely targeted shards of dialogue to Pastor Paul. Sanam Hashemi has a supporting role as a soft-spoken and hesitant congregant, Sister Jenny, who, despite her small role, is the first to ask the hard questions.
What is most remarkable about Rusty Wilson’s direction is its unobtrusiveness, although one sometimes wishes it might get things moving along a bit faster. The power of silence, however, was perfectly executed during Pastor Paul’s long pause after Sister Jenny questions him. The one thing that really irritated me – and which is probably written into the script – was the use of the hand-held mic. It wasn’t a problem during Pastor Joshua’s prayer or Pastor Paul’s sermon, but during the one-on-one discussions, and the pastor’s pillow talk with his wife, those mics were downright intrusive.
This production is physically and structurally beautiful, thanks in no small part to John Winn’s musical direction, Sarah Grady’s costuming, Rich Mason’s scenic design, Derek Dumais’ sound design, and Andrew Bonniwell’s lighting.
The Christians raises valid questions and stirs up controversy that requires introspection, discussion, and debate. And those things are so refreshing in these times when violence seems to be the norm.
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Photos by Jason Collins