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Regional Reviews: Raleigh/Durham

The Christians
PlayMakers Repertory Company
Review by Garrett Southerland


The Cast of The Christians
Photo by HuthPhoto
People turn to religion for any number of reasons: It may be the feeling of a connection to a higher power or to find safety and refuge from a hostile world outside the doors of a church. For many, it is to seek answers to the ultimate questions about who we are, why we are here, and what will happen to us after we die. But what happens when religion (be it Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or any other organized faith system) can't answer every question, and when safe assuredness is replaced by doubt and insecurity? Lucas Hnath's critically acclaimed play The Christians, presented by PlayMakers Repertory Company through March 10, explores how we as people navigate these moments, and how we make peace (or don't) with those who do not share our own beliefs.

The Christians takes place in a church founded by Pastor Paul (a charismatic Joey Collins) and his wife Elizabeth (Nemuna Ceesay), who have seen their ministry grow over twenty years, from very small numbers in a storefront building to a megachurch of thousands. With the assistance of Elder Jay (PlayMakers favorite Jeffrey Blair Cornell) and Associate Pastor Joshua (a riveting Alex Givens), the church has cultivated its positive reputation and devoted following.

Following the choir's invitation to worship, the audience serves as the congregation for Pastor Paul's emotional sermon. Utilizing his microphone with such ease that it almost seems like another appendage, Paul paces up and down, weaving his spell like many televangelists have before him. He praises the blessings the church has received in paying off their building debt, then moves swiftly into a fiery speech that reframes a key theological tenet of the Christian faith. It is a stunning moment that almost immediately starts the disintegration of his congregation and his own family.

Mr. Hnath knows a thing or two about theology. He grew up in an evangelical church, and his mother went to seminary school and became a minister. He even thought of doing the same before his love of theatre took him into a new direction. With this play, he clearly hopes to give the audience more than something to talk about. In an interview with dramaturg Jacqueline E. Lawton, he states, "I'm interested in not giving the audience that breath at the end. If the play doesn't do it, it's making the audience contribute something." He seems to have been successful; conversations started among audience members at the end of the performance I attended before we even made it to the lobby. Hnath stays respectful to all sides; he shows great sympathy to his characters on all sides in this conflict of beliefs and ideas.

Throughout The Christians, the characters speak into hand-held microphones even when they are in private conversation. Occasionally, Pastor Paul narrates moments of these exchanges ("He says... Then she says...") and he sometimes speaks in very short sentences, stylistic elements seen in some of Mr. Hnath's previous plays. While these techniques reinforce the subjective, tentative qualities in these characters and their positions, they are not as effective here as it they may have been intended to be.

Director Preston Lane makes note of how similar this play is to the works of Henrik Ibsen, whose dramas similarly explore the battles between radicals and their resisters. Lane, making his PlayMakers debut, has assembled a cast and crew that is both efficient and effective in their craft. Scenic design by Alexis Distler is remarkable for its service not only to The Christians but also the production of Tartuffe that is in rotation for this run. Oliver Wason's lighting design shifts gradually to underscore the dilapidation of the spirit of both the church of Pastor Paul. Real church choirs from the local community provide the music for this production; at the performance I attended, the United Church of Chapel Hill was represented. This is a nice and understandable touch, though the choir seemed out of scale with what one might expect to find in a megachurch. And, though the hymn selections clearly reinforce the play's themes, their style is more "southern gospel" and less secular rock, the common choice of megachurches these days.

The central theological conflict in this play is perhaps stated most succinctly by Elizabeth, the pastor's wife, when she observes a bit sarcastically that religious tolerance sometimes requires us to be intolerant of intolerance. The Christians challenges us to examine how we respond to those who believe differently than we do. The fact that we live in such a divided nation today makes this play even more relevant. It reminds us how important it is to find a way to embrace our differences and, hopefully, give each other the grace that so many are in search of.

The Christians, through March 10, 2018, for PlayMakers Repertory Company at the Paul Green Theatre at the Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art, 150 Country Club Road, Chapel Hill NC.Tickets can be purchased online at www.PlayMakersrep.org or by phone at 919-962-7529.

Playwright: Lucas Hnath
Director: Preston Lane
Scenic Design: Alexis Distler
Lighting Design: Oliver Wason
Costume Designer: Robin Vest
Sound Design: Palmer Hefferan
Choir Director: Glenn Mehrbach

Cast:
Wife: Nemuna Ceesay
Pastor: Joey Collins
Elder: Jeffrey Blair Cornell
Associate: Alex Givens
Congregant: Christine Mirzayan


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