By Charles Brousse
Religion and politics have always been the most common forbidden topics at American family gatherings. Perhaps it’s a tacit recognition that when it comes to matters depending on faith rather than factual verification, there is no easy way to avoid unbridgeable controversies that are bound to offend someone.
That being the case, it’s understandable why playwrights have also avoided these subjects, with occasional exceptions like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and, more recently, John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt. Now, along comes Lucas Hnath’s The Christians, which premiered at the Actors Theatre of Louisville’s 2014 Humana Festival of New American Plays, and is currently enjoying wide circulation throughout the country. The local producer is the San Francisco Playhouse, whose artistic director, Bill English, saw it at Humana, fell in love with the script and quickly decided to include it in his “Empathy Gym” series.
The choice required some courage on English’s part. Hnath’s play doesn’t pull any punches as it takes on the born-again-Christian evangelical movement, particularly its tendency to be intolerant of any deviation from established doctrine. In the opening scene, Pastor Paul (the perfectly cast Anthony Fusco), addressing the audience as if we are his congregants, describes how the church has prospered since its humble beginnings. As they listen, the people onstage behind him—the choir, his devoted wife (Stephanie Prentice), the head Elder (Warren David Keith), who is the link to the church’s governing board, and the dynamic associate pastor (Lance Gardner)—nod and smile at the joyous news.
Then, completely unexpectedly, Pastor Paul drops a bomb. After pausing for effect, he declares that there is a “crack” in this idyllic picture. In a powerful monologue, he relates how he had been talking with someone at a conference of evangelical missionaries who described how he witnessed a young boy try to rescue his sister from a burning building, only to lose his own life in the process. It was a heroic and unselfish act, but since the boy had not yet declared for Christ, his spirit could not be considered “saved.” He would have to pay for the oversight by being assigned to the fires of hell.
Listening to that, Pastor Paul says he underwent an epiphany. The loving God whom he worshipped and his church celebrated could not possibly be so cruel. It was hell that had to go. If God’s existence could not be questioned, the only alternative for Christians is to recognize that somewhere in history their faith took a wrong turn by adopting the Manichean view of human beings as suspended between heaven (those who have accepted Christ as their savior) and hell (those who haven’t). Following a fascinating public debate with his fundamentalist associate pastor in which the two trade biblical references like rifle fire across opposing trenches, Pastor Paul tells the congregation that he’s sure they will follow him in reimagining heaven as a place where believers, sinners and those—like the boy in the fire, who was undeclared—sit in peace at the Lord’s table.
Unfortunately, this is a doctrinal shift that goes beyond the congregation’s capacity for tolerance. Attacked on all sides—most especially by a choir member (Millie Brooks) who testifies that she cares more about dogma than about the personal needs of his flock—Paul watches helplessly as his supporters peel away until he stands alone, like Shakespeare’s King Lear, abandoned on the edge of a cliff.
All of this is fascinating dramatic material, but it loses much of its impact by being squeezed into a 90-minute, one-act play that has little room for exploring the characters, their relationships and even the clash of ideas that is at its heart. The feeling you get is that the San Francisco showing is more a workshop than a finished product. Perhaps the deficiencies can be remedied as it moves on to other venues. It will be interesting to watch.
NOW PLAYING: The Christians runs through March 11 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco; 415/677-9596; sfplayhouse.org.