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Lucas Hnath’s 90-Minute Play, The Christians, Raises Some Serious Theological Questions at PlayMakers Repertory Company

Joey Collins and Nemuna Ceesay star as Pastor Paul and Elizabeth (photo by HuthPhoto)

Joey Collins and Nemuna Ceesay star as Pastor Paul and Elizabeth (photo by HuthPhoto)

A church is a place where people go to see something that is very difficult to see. A place where the invisible is — at least for a moment — made visible. The theater can be that too.Lucas Hnath, playwright.

“It wasn’t what you said; it was how you said it.” How many times have we (as private citizens) found ourselves tripped up when the “what” is undermined by the “how”? And how lightly does that make us tread? We can only imagine the importance of both the “how” and the “what” when the speaker is responsible for the spiritual well-being of thousands of people.

Lucas Hnath’s The Christians, currently being produced by PlayMakers Repertory Company and directed by Preston Lane, is a play about a man who founded a church with just 15 members and nurtured it for 20 years as it grew to more than 3,000 members. It’s a play about a man who felt God’s calling to dedicate his life to saving the souls of the masses by preaching to them the truth as he felt God had revealed it to him.

More than anything, however, The Christians is a play about the possible consequences if this man feels that God has revealed to him a different truth and if he feels “a powerful urge to communicate” this different truth. He must choose carefully when he goes about deciding not only what to say but also how to say it.

Pastor Paul’s church is what could be described as a megachurch. The building and the parking lot are huge. It employs a huge staff to perform its various ministries. We are introduced to Pastor Paul and his church at a point in time at which two important occurrences intersect: (1) The church’s mortgage is now fully paid and (2) Pastor Paul has experienced a new revelation that causes him to reevaluate his theology (in his words, this revelation has revealed a “crack in the foundation,” a crack that he must now take pains to mend).

We are never specifically told this, but we are given the distinct impression that Pastor Paul’s church used what could be called the “Let me save you from going to hell” strategy of recruiting new members. And it was apparently quite successful. The problem now is, Pastor Paul has witnessed a young man of a different faith sacrifice his life to save another. His subsequent soul-searching and study have lead him to the revelation that there is no hell. And now he feels this “powerful urge to communicate” this revelation to his congregation. How will they react? Is it too late to mend this crack? Will his attempt to mend it only cause further damage? Will the entire church crumble and fall?

Christine Mirzayan stars as Jenny in The Christians (photo by HuthPhoto)

Christine Mirzayan stars as Jenny in The Christians (photo by HuthPhoto)

Joey Collins plays a very earnest Pastor Paul. He uses a microphone to address the congregation with that intimate, “whisper-like” quality of voice that so easily persuades them to want to accept and believe everything he says. Witty and likeable, Pastor Paul clearly has a handle on the art of writing and delivering a sermon; and Collins plays the role to a “T.”

Alex Givens presents an equally earnest Associate Pastor Joshua, who tells Pastor Paul: “I find myself wrestling with your sermon.” The two have a brief debate, and then a vote is taken. Fifty congregants support Joshua; a thousand support Paul. The upshot is that Joshua leaves, taking the 50 with him to form a new church. (We found it kind of interesting that the vote is taken using the “collection plates” and “scraps of paper.”)

Jeffrey Blair Cornell delivers a very business-like Elder J, who approaches Paul to discuss the fallout from the “bomb” that Paul has dropped. Cornell’s excellent command of rhetoric is apparent in a telling sentence that contains an even more telling “but.”

Christine Mirzayan gives a near-heartbreaking performance as congregant Sister Jenny, who emerges from the audience to question Pastor Paul and explain her own crisis of conscience. Jenny is grateful for everything the church has done for her, but she is concerned about the ramifications of this radical shift in theological direction. Voicing her concern, she states, “I feel lost.”

Nemuna Cessay plays Paul’s dedicated but disturbed wife. Why didn’t Paul discuss this earth-shattering revelation with her before moving forward? How can they move forward? What is in store for her? For him? For the church? Curiously, we never get her name. Equally curious: even when sharing their bed, she and Paul communicate using the same microphones that are used in the church sanctuary.

Joey Collins (left) and Jeffrey Blair Cornell star as Pastor Paul and Elder Jay (photo by HuthPhoto)

Joey Collins (left) and Jeffrey Blair Cornell star as Pastor Paul and Elder Jay (photo by HuthPhoto)

The production values for this show are nothing short of amazing.

Scenic designer Alexis Distler has thoroughly converted the stage into the sanctuary of a megachurch. The thrust of the stage is shaped like a cross, and there are two large crosses mounted on the upstage walls. Behind an upstage proscenium, there is seating for a choir. And, yes, there is an 18-member, fully robed choir who sing and clap at appropriate times.

Lighting designer Oliver Wason deftly handles the responsibility of shifting scenes from sanctuary to office to bedroom and back. His lighting also supplies subtle changes as the mood of the action shifts.

Costume designer Robin Vest captures “the look” for these characters, as well as the Choir Director and the members of the choir. Choir director Glenn Mehrbach and the 18-member choir do their job well. Several audience members joined in when the choir began their rhythmic clapping.

Sound designer Palmer Hefferan has nicely integrated the music and worship service sound effects into the production.

What is especially impressive about this production is that it moves quickly, changing scenes seamlessly and moving effortlessly from live-action to narration and back.

The script raises some serious theological questions, along with the questions of how to move forward as one comes to terms with possible answers to these questions. We heartily recommend it!

The cast of PRC's production of The Christians includes (from left) Alex Givens as Associate Pastor Joshua, Nemuna Ceesay as Elizabeth, and Joey Collins as Pastor Paul (photo by HuthPhoto)

The cast includes (from left) Alex Givens as Associate Pastor Joshua, Nemuna Ceesay as Elizabeth, and Joey Collins as Pastor Paul (photo by HuthPhoto)

SECOND OPINION: Jan. 31st Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: https://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/the-christians/Event?oid=5396311. (Note: You must subscribe to read this article). (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Feb. 1st Triangle Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2018/02/prc-will-present-the-christians-a-provocative-new-play-by-lucas-hnath-on-feb-1-march-10/.)

PlayMakers Repertory Company presents THE CHRISTIANS at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 13, 14, and 17; 2 p.m. Feb. 18; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Feb. 22 and 23; 2 p.m. Feb. 24; 7:30 p.m. Feb. 27 and 28 and March 3; 2 p.m. March 4; 7:30 p.m. March 8 and 9; 2 p.m. March 10 in the Paul Green Theatre in the Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art, 150 Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27514, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.

TICKETS: $15-$48 ($10 UNC students and $12 other college students), with discounts for UNC faculty and staff and U.S. military personnel.

BOX OFFICE: 919-962-PLAY, prcboxoffice@unc.edu, or https://tickets.playmakersrep.org/.

GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919-962-PLAY (7529), prcboxoffice@unc.edu, or http://www.playmakersrep.org/box-office/groups-and-special-events/.

SHOWS: http://www.playmakersrep.org/show/the-christians/ and https://www.facebook.com/events/2010723539204360/.

2017-18 SEASON: https://playmakersrep.org/season/2017-2018-season/

PRESENTER: http://www.playmakersrep.org/, https://www.facebook.com/playmakersrep, https://twitter.com/playmakersrep, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PlayMakers_Repertory_Company, and http://www.youtube.com/user/PlayMakersRep.

PRC BLOG (Page to Stage): http://playmakersrep.blogspot.com/.

VENUE: http://playmakersrep.org/aboutus/paulgreen.

DIRECTIONS/PARKING: http://playmakersrep.org/visitorinfo.

NOTE 1: All shows are wheelchair accessible, and assistive-listening devices will be available at all performances.

NOTE 2: There will be an All-Access Performance, with sign-language interpretation and audio description by Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh, at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 13th.

NOTE 3: There will be FREE post-show discussions, with members of the cast and creative team, following the show’s 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 14th, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 18th, performances.

NOTE 4: There will be an Open Captioning Performance at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 24th (for more information, click here).

NOTE 5: The North Carolina Psychoanalytic Society will sponsor a FREE post-show Mindplay psychoanalytic discussions on “Who is our sister/brother?,” led by David Moore, PhD, LPC-S and John K. Tisdale, D.Min., after the show’s 2 p.m. Sunday, March 4th, performance.

OTHER LINKS:

The Christians (2014 Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville and 2015 Off-Broadway drama): https://www.dramatists.com/cgi-bin/db/single.asp?key=5017 (Dramatists Play Service, Inc.), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/Production/5977 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucas_Hnath#The_Christians (Wikipedia).

The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).

Study Guide: https://www.denvercenter.org/docs/default-source/Show-Study-Guides/2016-17/Christians_Study_Guide_V3_lr.pdf (Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company).

Lucas Hnath (Orlando, FL-born playwright): http://www.playmakersrep.org/artists/lucas-hnath/ (PlayMakers Rep bio), http://newdramatists.org/lucas-hnath (New Dramatists bio), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/45758 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/lucas-hnath-507444 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm9034912/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucas_Hnath (Wikipedia).

Preston Lane (Greensboro, NC director and founding artistic director of Triad Stage in Greensboro): http://www.playmakersrep.org/artists/preston-lane/ (PlayMakers Rep bio), https://www.setc.org/preston-lane/ (Southeastern Theatre Conference, Inc. bio), and https://www.facebook.com/preston.lane.37 (Facebook page).

EDITOR’S NOTE:

A native of North Carolina, Yvette L. Holder has studied theater at three institutions: the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute (New York), and N.C. Central University, where she received a BA in Dramatic Arts. Yvette also promotes and produces comedy theater, as well as working with playwrights around the country during the development stage of their work. She hosts a monthly play reading session: “Sips and Scripts” at Imurj in downtown Raleigh. Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read Yvette and Kurt’s reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.

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