Through May 20|
THE CHRISTIANS Road Less Traveled Productions/RLTP Theatre
By Augustine Warner
“Christianity” is a very misleading term, an umbrella for all the forms of religion, all the denominations based on Christ.
There have been wars between branches, centuries of bloody struggles over the soul of a religion and the ground rules.
And, there are many other religions torn apart by theological disputes.
Lucas Hnath’s “The Christians” revolves around a megachurch pastor who decides to change some of those ground rules once the mortgage has been paid off on the complex which houses the ministry and the vast church housing thousands to hear Pastor Paul (Dave Hayes).
It’s a dynamite performance from Hayes.
In an eerie replay of a well-publicized evangelical feud, Pastor Paul decides to come out against Hell, at least against the theological concept of Hell and the Devil.
It’s a deep exploration of theology and history behind the two concepts, for many, central to their understanding of Christianity.
It tears apart his church leadership, his church and his family
Preaching against Hell sets Pastor Paul at odds in the middle of the service with fiery Pastor Joshua (Aaron Moss).
Pastor Joshua fervently believes in Hell, from personal experience and in his new church, gives hellfire and brimstone sermons, with his congregation renting a “Y” on Sunday morning.
Congregants leak away from Pastor Paul because they apparently see Hell as the punishment for a life different from the church-going.
Set designer Dyan Burlingame has created one of those low-key, friendly churches, less preacher in a pulpit than a conversation between the clerics in their chairs and the congregation in the seats.
Pastor Paul says his hot line to God tells him Hell isn’t there and the Devil has gone away.
Striding around the conversation pit, he tells the congregation he’s changed his point of view, based on God’s message.
Pastor Joshua doesn’t seem to be on the same cell network and objects, calling for a vote taken in the collection baskets and leading a walkout.
Pastor Paul has built the congregation and Hayes’ pastor seems like a reasonable guy but you have to think he wouldn’t have built this without an iron will and connection to those people who pay the bills and buy into his message.
Many of these megachurches are pretty theologically conservative and enjoy the electronic version of “that old-time religion,” what Pastor Joshua is delivering.
Pastor Paul is suddenly not delivering that, shifting away toward what used to be called “main line religions.”
His “I said it, so it must be so” approach doesn’t go over well, with one of the church elders, (Steve Jakiel), bailing on him and finally, his wife (Lisa Vitrano) tip-toeing away.
“The Christians” is structured as an extended one-act play, letting us watch the fall of a church leader as his crowd leaves.
Without the stage intermission and that relaxing effect, the story moves quickly with strong direction from Scott Behrend.
Churches do fall apart, especially when built around a charismatic preacher and something goes wrong.
Behrend has that Burlingame set and a uniformly strong cast, Hayes, Jakiel, Moss, Vitrano’s Elizabeth and Victoria Perez’ Jenny.
What’s really interesting about this production is somewhat buried in the program, sponsorship by St. John Baptist Church.
For those who don’t know, that’s very close to the top if not the top of local African-American congregations, that brick complex on Goodell Street, just off the Kensington.
For that church to sponsor Hnath’s play in a theater a couple of blocks away suggests there is a real message here in the decline and fall of Pastor Paul and his megachurch.
This is a story of a broken connection between a preacher and his congregation and between a preacher and his administrative family and his personal family.
Pastor Paul isn’t an Elmer Gantry preacher or one of those revival preachers who sets up his tent around town as the weather warms.
He’s a conversation preacher and his congregation hangs up on him.
In these times of an intense mixture of pastors and politics, “The Christians” shows that things can go badly wrong, quickly.
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