There's hell to pay in 'The Christians' at Phoenix Theatre

Inevitable shifts in language usually tend toward mitigation or the watering down of old meanings. Many of
Pastor Paul ascends his preaching summit as Joshua, Elder Jay, and the Pastor's wife look on.
these involve the weakening grip of Christianity, despite its continued hold over broad swaths of the American cultural mainstream. "Silly" is related distantly to a state of blessedness. And "profanity" has been leached of its power over our common speech so it can be misapplied to obscenity: "Go to hell" has given way to "F*** you!" Taking the name of the Lord thy God in vain has acquired a mildness that would have shocked our ancestors.

In "The Christians," the impact of religious language remains connected to fundamentalist theology. Lucas Hnath's drama, set in a contemporary megachurch, turns on the importance of hell and its connection to belief in a place of eternal punishment for unsaved sinners. At issue is the universalism of salvation, supported in some places in the Bible, versus an afterlife in which the sheep are divided from the goats, with souls of the deceased placed in one of two camps, heaven or hell. The latter view is asserted in other venerated sources, most vividly by the Christian Bible's grand finale, Revelation.

Confusingly, these opposite destinations are associated with physical locations even among casual believers, biblical support of which is very much ambiguous. Acknowledging divine help in victory, professional athletes sometimes look up and point toward what most of them must know is the endless expanse of outer space beyond our atmosphere, pretending they're thanking heaven just above their heads.

Phoenix Theatre opens its production tonight, continuing to extend the opportunity for meditation on such matters through most of Lent, ending on Palm Sunday. The drama turns on a split between Pastor Paul, a charismatic megachurch founder who is certain God has told him that non-Christians of sterling character will know eternal bliss, versus Joshua, a dynamic associate pastor whose journey toward deep faith has been nurtured by Paul as the church has thrived and paid off a large debt on its splendid building. Joshua is a strict adherent of the belief that the pathway to a heavenly abode lies through Christ alone.

The schism is set in motion by Paul's sermon, which opens the play after a lively gospel number (sung by a choir that returns front and center several times, directed by Pam Blevins-Hinkle). Grant Goodman immediately establishes the hypnotic hold Paul has acquired over his massive congregation: The sermon embraces some righteous bragging, a bit of corny personal sharing, a rosy view of the community's collective advance toward blessedness.

All well and good, up to the point Paul reveals his radical vision for the church, in which he supposes that the congregation's further growth depends on his new revelation: Condemnation of unsaved sinners is not the way to go; doctrinal purity has little to do with the God's enduring love. The new dispensation, he urges, means that hellfire no longer awaits those who pray differently or follow divergent teachings or none at all.

Martha Jacobs's last directing stint at the new Phoenix was "Indecent," a stylistically adventuresome re-creation of the throes of the Yiddish theater set against orthodox Judaism. In both shows, Jacobs shows herself to be a master of timing; she plays her cast like a maestro, and Hnath's method serves her well. As is evident in Indiana Repertory Theatre's current production of "A Doll's House, Part Two," the playwright times his characters' major entrances so as to reorient the drama's direction, not just reveal more about how they fit into a settled structure.

Thus, the epochal sermon in "The Christians" is succeeded by Joshua's rebuttal, and the battle is joined. As the
At the start of a service of celebration, the on-screen message prevails.
drama proceeds, bringing in a genial but savvy Elder (Charles Goad) and Pastor Paul's resentfully dutiful wife (Jen Johansen), the essential parameters of the conflict are set up. But the most crucial contribution perhaps is the anguished testimony of a Congregant (Kelsey Leigh Miller), her domestic and social life torn asunder by the judgmental divide.

After Joshua leaves the church, taking a saving remnant with him, Paul must deal with personal and professional issues involving these three in his wounded institution. The authenticity of God's message to him that salvation lies not in fallible human hands but in His loving embrace faces ferocious challenges from the severely conflicted Elder, Wife, and Congregant. As seen in Thursday's preview, they are played with such clarity and electrifying focus, complementing Ray Hutchins' staunch, deeply embedded Joshua, that even Goodman's command of the stage in the first scene wilts in retrospect as the actor embodies a much more vulnerable clergyman in the one-act's latter half.

The device of extending the hand-held microphones' use to private conversations from their essential role in contemporary sanctuaries serves to re-emphasize the public dimensions that holy controversies tend to take on. All the characters' interactions have that odd blend of private and public confession, revelation, and recrimination characteristic of every movement of mass control, from Protestant megachurches to Communist re-education camps.

The bleeding of hell's meaning into the travails of this world is unavoidable among those for whom the concept of hell can never be discarded. So "The Christians" seems to assert, along with Christopher Marlowe's Mephistopheles in dialogue with the title character of "Doctor Faustus": "Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it." Phil Male's scenic design, along with the lights and sound of Zac Hunter and Ben Dobler, offers a vision of the modern megachurch as heaven's bright vestibule.

Yet the inevitably human range of interpretation gives rise to a hellish scene of endless division, rooted in this life and its abundant supply of refutations to purportedly divine promises. The promises are embodied, with searing irony, in the choir's rousing, expertly prepared hymns. The repeated assertion of the final one that the faithful will "lean on the everlasting arms" is the only point of rest offered by Hnath's disturbing story. Each member of a "Christians"' audience is implicitly charged with deciding if that's enough.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]


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