Reviewed by Jenny Lower
Mark Taper Forum
Through January 10
“I have a powerful urge to communicate with you, but I find the distance between us insurmountable.”
That refrain, repeated at various points throughout Lucas Hnath’s powerful, richly textured The Christians, could be the motto for any number of American ideological divides. Here it’s used to express a pastor’s concern that his flock has grown apart from those to whom they most wish to show God’s love — namely, nonbelievers. His actions stemming from this realization, and the fallout that ensues, form the substance of a series of public and private exchanges that gradually hue closer to the heart of divided feeling in this country. Directed by Les Waters, the production is making its West Coast premiere at the Mark Taper Forum following a celebrated run in New York.
Designed as the worship space of an evangelical Christian megachurch, the set is dominated by a large luminous cross and a choir box filled with local musicians. (The play opens with a rousing rendition of “Hold to God’s Unchanging Hand,” and the singers go on to deliver several hymns throughout the play.) Pastor Paul (Andrew Garman) stands to give a sermon, but he soon reveals that this Sunday’s preaching will be a little different. After acknowledging the recent landmark reached by the church in paying off its debt, he announces a departure going forward. For reasons that are better left to emerge during the play, he has ceased to believe in eternal damnation. “We are no longer a congregation that believes in hell,” he declares. “We are no longer a congregation that says my way is the only way.”
This well-intentioned but radical proclamation leaves the congregation reeling. Before long, it ruptures the community in two. The first to defect is Associate Pastor Joshua (Larry Powell), a late convert from a troubled family who appears to have found in the church the whole of his identity. His attempts to counter his superior with Scripture, referenced in respectful but incredulous tones, become a touchpoint for the role of literalism in faith.
As the play goes on, Hnath pulls back to reveal a wider frame through which to interpret the motivations and significance of Pastor Paul’s decision. His timing is questioned by Jenny (a marvelous Emily Donahoe) in a scene fraught with humor and quiet fireworks. A former hard-luck case who found succor in the church, she is now plagued with doubts about the implications of his preaching.
Through his wife (Linda Powell), we glimpse hubris and intolerance behind the apparent message of acceptance. Her disappointment and blistering reproval could be the aftermath of any spousal betrayal. That the play makes the couple’s discovery of a theological divergence feel as devastating as an affair is a testament to Hnath’s script and the skillful performances Waters elicits from his cast.
While The Christians breaks no new philosophical ground, it addresses itself to familiar questions with the steady, earnest spirit of a scholar. And it does so alongside emotionally involving, nuanced characters: Those who feel that the Christian movement’s message of tolerance has been hijacked by a polarizing agenda will find that viewpoint thoroughly explored here. Conversely, those who believe that too much “tolerance” risks dissolving Christianity into meaningless, feel-good mush will also find their views humanely embodied.
The play’s greatest satisfaction lies in its compassionate exploration of these differing viewpoints. There it succeeds where so many of us can’t.
Mark Taper Forum; 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown; Tues.-Fri. 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 p.m. & 8:00 p.m.; Sun., 1:00 p.m. & 6:30 p.m.; dark Dec. 24 and 25, Jan. 1 and 4; added performances, Mon., Dec. 21 & 28, 8:00 p.m.; through January 10. (213) 628-2772; www.centertheatregroup.org. Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.