Actor’s Express is opening its 30th anniversary fall season with Lucas Hnath’s play “The Christians,” running through Oct. 15, directed by Freddie Ashley, who saw the play at The Humana Festival of New American Plays in 2014. It has since had an Off-Broadway run and also appeared at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago.
We find ourselves inside a fundamentalist Christian megachurch where, one Sunday, Pastor Paul (Brian Kurlander) reveals he has had an epiphany: He believes the fires of hell are metaphorical, and that the word “hell” itself has been mistranslated and misunderstood for centuries. Furthermore, he believes that a Loving Universal Beingness many call God could not condemn His own beloved creations (humans) to such a thing as eternal torment.
His words are, in effect, an invitation to write a new cosmology; he invites his flock to “get a greater God” and to understand than an omniscient, omnipotent Being of total love is fundamentally beyond human understanding, and certainly beyond the human tendency to judge and assign blame.
Well. You aren’t about to take away my hell—that seems to be the reaction from other leaders of the congregation; such as the Associate (Minister, one assumes), played by Enoch King; the Elder (Greta M. Glenn); the Congregant (Sarah Newby Halicks); and the Pastor’s Wife (Kathleen Wattis Kettrey).
This congregation, by the way, numbers in the thousands and undoubtedly has a large television ministry, and is now, finally, out of debt—meeting as they do in a stupefyingly huge arena. Many people have a lot of money, time, and an earnest need to believe invested in Pastor Paul’s church; and most human beings resist change (have you noticed?).
But let’s get back to hell. In the interest of full disclosure, as a small child I grew up in a very fundamentalist Southern church which virtually reveled in hell and delightedly and casually instilled much fear in me. So I had quite a visceral reaction to “The Christians,” and it wasn’t pleasant. The scenic designers (Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay) have done their work too well: This church has a pulpit, hand microphones passed around, and most impressive of all, a full choir to serenade us with “The Old Rugged Cross,” “Just As I Am,” and other old standards.
I did also notice that for much of the 90-minute play, the audience was extremely quiet. This play is not funny; nor does it invoke applause (except at the curtain call). I must say that I, personally, was not entertained: The piece invoked too many dark ghosts. “Hell is murky,” said Lady Macbeth. She knew what she was talking about.
I know we’re in an era “in which we can make space for other people of conscience to hold beliefs different than our own,” as Mr. Ashley says in the program. Hopefully, “The Christians” will do that and give rise to some meaningful dialogues. And no one, including the playwright, is trying to convert or unconvert anybody to anything. We’re asked to think for ourselves.
On a brighter note, I’m happy to report that the five actors are superb. Mr. Kurlander, with his smooth, telegenic good looks and mellifluous voice is topnotch. And so is every other cast member; I’ve mentioned who’s who, so please take note that each is giving a virtually flawless performance. It was almost amusing when the Wife (Ms. Kettrey), who has sat silent for a long time, finally gets up and lets us know she has gumption and a few thoughts of her own. Ms. Halicks totally nails the angst of her character; Mr. King is most adroit as he moves from shock, to disbelief, defiance, and controlled anger. Ms. Glenn is a calm voice of reason, almost majestic.
Mr. Ashley is a master at eliciting fine performances from his actors; he’s done it here. You may be quite stimulated or amused by “The Christians”; I’m still recovering.
For tickets and information, visit actors-express.com.