Lucas Hnath’s 2015 play “The Christians” is one of those productions whose name invokes a certain level of apprehension in those who actually use that term to describe themselves. In a time when religion is a hot button topic, one’s mind tends to go straight to parody or a thumbing of the nose more than a discussion piece about its subject manner. Luckily, this production is absolutely the latter of that list.
Taking place in a modern “mega church,” Pastor Paul (Chamblee Ferguson) is preaching on a normal Sunday morning as they celebrate the paying off of the church’s mortgage. He is charismatic and engaging with his congregation, building it up from a handful of people to thousands, and this particular week, he preaches a sermon that is not only controversial but also rocks his church to his core, including his Associate Pastor Joshua (Steven Michael Walters), his wife Elizabeth (Christina Clark), one of his Elders, Jay (Tyrees Allen), and even one of his member, Jenny (Lindsay Ryan). Pastor Paul’s convictions are strong, but his commitment to those convictions, which make his entire world start to crumble, may either be his saving grace or his undoing.
Running at about ninety minutes, this production packs a serious punch while doing its best to keep things very neutral in its opinions. It is a very tough thing to write a script that lets the audience take the discussion from it instead of doing it for them, and Hnath does so masterfully. He truly and simply presents the case and lets his characters show it from both sides in order to give those in attendance the information they need to either support or refute the basics of the material. As a man of faith myself, I was riveted by the dialogue and could easily imagine this kind of discussion happening in any of our houses of worship. And while this takes place within the framework of the Christian church (no denomination is really ever stated), this type of presentation could be put in any type of place of worship and spark the same conversations.
And as we know, even the best scripts in the world can go nowhere without a great on-stage presentation, and the work put in by the cast and crew at the Kalita Humphreys Theater in Dallas delivers on every level. Upon walking into the theater (for the first time, by the way), the stage set of the church’s sanctuary made me wonder if they actually had church there every Sunday. From the marble floors to the décor to even the worn padded benches that the choir sat in (and yes, there is a full choir made up of volunteers from the Dallas-Fort Worth area), this production had a truly genuine feel to it. The cast here is also VERY strong, with Ferguson’s performance of a pastor that simply wants to lead his flock through some very tough-to-navigate waters from a message he believes came straight from God himself with both dignity and even heart-wrenching pain at times, while Walters’ Joshua brings the same emotion from a different angle. Joshua could be very easily played as the antagonist here, but there seems to be a conscious choice by both the cast and their director Joel Ferrell to play both of them more as brothers in a disagreement than adversaries. Clark and Allen, while seen as supporting characters, truly bring their A-game on a level that made me almost see them as much of lead roles as the two pastors, and Ryan’s small but incredibly pivotal role (which I really don’t want to spoil here) is played with a wonderful inquisitiveness and emotion that will make every churchgoer in the room be able to identify with her character as either themselves or someone in their congregation that they know.
If you are wondering how this production goes in a town like the one that I live in where we are seen as the buckle of the Bible belt, don’t. The Dallas Theater Center continues their tradition of “Stay Late,” which in our performance featured the entire main cast and will in each night include a member of the local clergy to continue the conversations started with “The Christians”. I found this time fascinating to not only hear the cast talking with a local pastor about their views of how the show unfolded but also by the comments from the audience themselves including a couple of members of the choir giving their feelings. This is a tradition that has happened as long as I have been attending performances in this series both here and at the Wyly Theatre, and if this one was any indication, I may be spending more time “staying late” than I have in the past.
“The Christians” is a show that I highly recommend to anyone of any level of any faith to come and experience. Whether it is here at the Kalita Humphreys Theater through February 19th or whenever a local company performs it near you, don’t be afraid to bring a group with you in order to have a healthy discussion about faith, hope, and love afterwards.