A devastating trend over the past decade has pitted Americans against each other over the topics of faith and politics.
Lucas Hnath’s play, The Christians, under the direction of First Presbyterian Theater’s Managing Artistic Director Thom Hofrichter, examines these topics and invites the audience to move toward a higher acceptance of one another’s beliefs in hopes of avoiding irreparable harm and division.
The selection of this play is designed to encourage spirited discourse and discourage negativity or the outright abolishment of communication and debate.
Upon entering the theater, audiences are immersed in a church setting. Though there is no direct interaction with the performers, there is a sensation of witnessing the internal and external conflicts among the characters.
This unnamed holy house begins its service with a few verses of traditional songs which clearly serve as a welcoming device to that week’s parishioners.
Once the music ends, however, the tone of the room shifts based on the shocking rhetoric of the church’s pastor. The shock that the church’s attendees and audience experience force each of us to reflect on our own practices and beliefs, a common theme found in this year’s selections at First Presbyterian Theater.
Starring in this play is Austin Berger, an FPT mainstay who most recently appeared in last season’s production of Faith Healer. As Pastor Paul, Berger’s authentic rendition of a man of faith who is at a moral crossroads exhibits the inner turmoil that countless humans have likely wrestled with throughout history.
His character has spent decades building the trust of his flock and associates, and Berger’s genuine performance as the chief pastor of what has become a mega-church provides an opportunity for viewers to understand more closely how even the holiest of us struggles with certain unanswered questions.
Riley Newsome, a graduate from Huntington University, plays the youthful associate Pastor Joshua, a man whose own checkered history is at the crux of the conflict between him and his superior.
Newsome’s performance is equally convincing, especially as we see him evolve from the initial shocking sermon toward his role within religion in later scenes. Through long monologues, Newsome presents a firm counterpoint to the positions that Berger’s Pastor Paul creates at the outset.
Filling out the cast are David McCants as a church elder named Jay, Alora Nichole as an active congregant named Jenny, and Jennifer Poiry as Pastor Paul’s wife Elizabeth. Though a silent character during the church’s public services, McCants offers a stunning amount of impact with his deliberate and grave expressions of concern as a representative of the church’s board of directors.
In one of the play’s most poignant scenes, McCants and Berger present one of the play’s most crucial themes: a challenge to traditional thought and practice found within the church. In her role as a faithful parishioner, Nichole does a beautiful job in vocalizing the concerns of Paul’s doubters and, perhaps, many non-believers in a succinct, yet genuinely nervous fashion.
Lastly, Poiry’s tremendous exhibition as the loyal wife creates even more depth of conflict for the troubled pastor as the play unfolds.
Though there is no intermission, The Christians offers much to unpack in its 90-minute running time. The mastery of this story is in its unique personification of our own concerns with communication between one another, and this cast offers a stirring amount of tension as the plot develops.
Audience members of strong religious faith can gain just as much as those who have lengthy lists of questions and doubts. While placing the dilemma within the holy walls of a house of God, it seems clear that the play’s central message is not limited to those of faith.
More significantly, the challenges and rhetoric exchanged on stage here can bridge our seemingly deteriorating and divided culture.