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Review: ‘The Christians’ at Baltimore Center Stage

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Spearheading a “season of community” and stimulating thought-provoking dialogue, Baltimore Center Stage headlines the first production of its 2017/18 span in electrifying fashion with rising playwright Lucas Hnath’s (author of the multi-Tony nominee, Broadway hit, A Doll’s House, Part 2) soul-searching drama, The Christians.

Lawrence Clayton, Adam Gerber, Howard W. Overshown, and Nikkole Salter. Photo by Richard Anderson.

The Christians’ majestic set converts the historic Pearlstone Theater into a modern-day megachurch sanctuary. Divinely designed by Mike Carnahan, with exquisite accents including a Lucite pulpit, flat screen projections, and an illuminated cross, the set comes complete with a spirited choir of local church singers and a four-piece band. (Greater Baltimore Church of Christ Choir is performing Sep 7–17; Community Choir of Baltimore Center Stage is performing Sep 19–Oct 1; and New Psalmist Baptist Church Choir is performing Oct 3–8.)

This provocative season opener, winningly directed by Hana S. Sharif, tells the story of a contemporary fundamentalist pastor’s startlingly abrupt declaration, following the celebratory news that the church’s long-standing debt has been paid off: “We are no longer a congregation that believes in Hell.” Calamity ensues, with Associate Pastor Joshua (ardently played by Adam Gerber), ultimately resigning from the congregation and forming his own church, resulting in a spiraling, corrosive divide and fallout.

Jessiee Datino. Photo by Richard Anderson.

The Christians specifically examines leadership and faith. Faith is fundamentally what we have all been discussing since 9/11. The church in this play is a metaphor for our communities and our country. What happens when you no longer trust those you have entrusted to lead you?” said Baltimore Center Stage Artistic Director Kwame Kwei-Armah. “I’m thrilled to bring this production to Baltimore and for Center Stage to serve as a convener of many more conversations about leadership… in Baltimore, in Maryland, and in our country.”

Throughout the 97-minute production, the audience is consciously incorporated into the script, first as a part of the congregation, from Pastor Paul’s (robustly delivered by Howard W. Overshown) full-length sermon at the top of the play, then, as active reflectors in nearly every conversation, including heady discussions between Paul and his associate pastor (compellingly portrayed by Gerber) and his wife (fabulously depicted by Nikkole Salter), with each character constantly speaking into live hand-held microphones, heightening the emotional intensity of every scene.

Lawrence Clayton and Adam Gerber. Photo by Richard Anderson.

Briskly paced by Sharif, each of the five-member ensemble is first-rate and convincingly committed to his/her corresponding roles. Overshown is exceptional as the conflicted and misunderstood Pastor Paul and action narrator; Gerber is sensational as the passionate traditionalist, Associate Pastor Joshua; Lawrence Clayton is measured as the pragmatic Elder Jay; Jessiee Datino is earnestly effective as church congregant, Jenny, a struggling, divorced single mother who offers a pivotal, touching testimonial that directly questions Pastor Paul’s motives; and Salter is steadfast and dynamic as Pastor Paul’s wife, Elizabeth.

Regardless of religious belief or doctrinal stance, The Christians is a timely, powerful piece that engages, grips and rivets, encouraging theatergoers to formulate their own deductions.

Running Time: Approximately one hour and 36 minutes, with no intermission.

The Christians plays through October 8, 2017 at Baltimore Center Stage – 700 North Calvert Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 332-0033, or purchase them online.

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