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The Christians Fearlessly Tackles the Toughest of Faith-Based Questions

Alex Givens (left) and Joey Collins star as Associate Pastor Joshua and Pastor Paul (photo by HuthPhoto)

Alex Givens (left) and Joey Collins star as Associate Pastor Joshua and Pastor Paul (photo by HuthPhoto)

The Christians, onstage now at Playmakers Repetory Company, under the direction of the esteemed Preston Lane, is an interesting dramatic play that will cause viewers to think about tough religious issues. These are the kinds of things, of course, that no one wants to think about, but on which everyone should.

The show opens upon a gorgeous church set- amazingly true to life with its gleaming wooden floor, cross-bearing seats, and a perfect pulpit. Viewers will instantly feel as though they have been transported to church, especially when the pastor (Joey Collins) starts speaking.

The sermon delivered by this pastor is certainly not of your normal “fire and brimstone” variety. For, after he announces that the church- complete with a coffee shop and bookstore a la Joel Osteen- has finally paid its debts and is owned outright, he delivers a startling message: he no longer believes in hell, and he feels that his congregation shouldn’t either.

As his congregation sits idly on, not yet ready to express feelings on the topic, one man, Brother Joshua (Alex Givens) speaks up. He expresses concern over the “heretic” teachings of the pastor and even asks for a vote to be cast determining which speaker has the most followers. Givens gives his impassioned speech an earnest, fundamentalist bent that is incredibly believable, a position he maintains throughout the entire show.

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)

While, initially, most congregants side with the Pastor, what follows is an upheaval among the congregants that brings to light many important themes of the play. Here, viewers are asked to question the idea of church as a business. They are asked to examine how participants get something from their church-going, something pre-prescribed and comfortable, and how, when that “something” is taken away or altered, they revolt, much like people might distress over a new update to Windows that they don’t find easily accessible.

The oh-so-common punishment and reward system present in many modern churches is beautifully and thoroughly examined throughout Lucas Hnath’s deftly-dense script, particularly during the pastor’s tense interactions with Jenny (Christine Mirzayan), a congregant who, in her eyes, has profited much from the church but now has concerns about it and its new teachings.

This and other terse interactions in the performance play out beautifully, thanks in large part to Lane’s gorgeous and subtle direction. Never has one used three chairs, three backs to the audience, to communicate so much and so profoundly.

These chairs, under Lane’s direction, go from representing the nameless patrons of the church to representing the pastor and his wife (Nemuna Ceesay) effortlessly as they sit in the confines of their marital bed, speaking tough words to one another.

While Collins, throughout, plays his role with an innocence and vulnerability that makes the character utterly relatable, some of the strongest and most subtle acting come from Ceesay who, though she has few lines to give, delivers each with incredible strength and clarity- no easy feat with this tough dialogue. Lane also makes that smart and powerful directorial choice to silence her character’s voice, both literally and stage-wise, throughout the first half of the production, making it all the more powerful when the character does speak and smartly underlining some of the faults in the pastor’s choices.

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)

Overall, Hnath’s script is smart and intricate, obviously created by someone with religious scars of his own. He has even (jab-jab) named his pastor character Paul, a biblical allusion of sorts to the scriptural character of the same name who makes an all-important discovery and has “scales cast from his eyes,” changing his whole life in the process.

And, while this beautifully-done production may start like any sleepy Sunday at church, it turns out to be anything but. What follows in this brief play (mercifully performed with no intermission so as not to disturb its beauty) is nothing more than an exploration of all of the tough questions people don’t want to ask but desperately need to about their own religion.

Far from anti-faith- in fact, some may even call it faith-affirming in its own right- this production is brave, fearless, and incredibly powerful. Don’t miss it.

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

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

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:

Susie Potter is a Raleigh, NC-based freelance writer and editor. She is a 2009 graduate of Raleigh’s Meredith College, where she majored in English. She holds graduate degrees in teaching and American literature from North Carolina State University in Raleigh. In addition to her work for Triangle Arts and Entertainment, she is an award-winning author of short fiction. Her works have appeared in The Colton Review, Raleigh Quarterly, Broken Plate Magazine, Big Muddy: A Journal of the Mississippi River Valley, the Chaffey Review, and Existere. To read all of Susie Potter’s Triangle Arts and Entertainment articles and reviews, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/susie-q/. To read more of her writings, click http://www.triangleartsreview.com/, http://www.susiepotter.com, and http://www.myspace.com/susiepotter.

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