Review: ‘The Christians’ at The Wilma Theater in Philadelphia

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“I have a powerful urge to communicate with you, but I find the distance between us insurmountable.”

The Christians by Lucas Hnath is a dynamite exploration of religion without the zoomed in bias of personal religious opinion. The audience is immediately placed inside a mega church complete with tacky blue carpet, a choir in robes with crosses embroidered on the stoles, and two screens flashing Praise Song lyrics across them. Director Tim Bond, who directed the same production in Syracuse, brings a unique and searching story to the Wilma Stage. What happens when the Evangelical-Industrial complex is challenged by its own leader’s shift in beliefs?

The cast and choir. Photo by Alexander Izillaev.
(Left to right:) Erika LaVonn (Elizabeth), Paul DeBoy (Pastor Paul), DeLance Minefee (Joshua), Ames Adamson (Elder Jay), and (background) the local community choir. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev

As soon as the Pastor uttered the words, “Let us Pray”, several audience members bowed their heads and folded their hands, in dutiful preparation. The choir, made up of Philadelphia community members, is outstanding vocally. The choir acts as a giant Greek Chorus through most of the show. They sit stoically, taking in the message while never giving us a glimpse into their individual minds. It brings home the idea of the Shepherd vs. the Sheep. What happens when the sheep decide they don’t agree with their shepherd?

The essential question posed by the Pastor, is whether or not a physical hell exists. This questions begins a rift in the the church congregation that splits the Pastor’s public and private life. When the consequences of your beliefs make others question their own, it can begin a very sticky path, especially when it comes to saving people’s souls.

Pastor Paul (Paul Deboy) delivers a sermon to his congregation, on the first Sunday after they have just finished paying off their debt for the church, where he proclaims that Hell is not a Physical Place but rather a state of mind. This is a radical shift of position for the Church and there is immediate but oh, so subtle, backlash. Joshua (Delance Minefee), the Associate Pastor in the church takes the Pulpit and begins to question Pastor Paul’s logic on the matter. He shoots out different Bible verses in hopes of finding solid ground to place his counter- argument.The debate centers around what the Bible literally says (or rather has been translated to), and what it supposedly means. There are no winners or losers in these debates, only more unanswerable questions.

Later on, a Congregant, Jenny (the lovely and grounded Julie Jesneck) takes the stand and also challenges Pastor Paul’s stance on Hell. One of the most interesting moments from this section is when Jenny says, “ I can’t imagine it, that heaven/if I can’t imagine it, I can’t believe it,… “ .The Pastor’s response is that he doesn’t understand why Heaven should be imaginable. The dialogue in this section was perfectly timed and stunningly crafted. When Pastor Paul looks to one of his Board Members, Elder Jay ( fantastically charismatic Ames Adamson), for backup, he is left utterly alone in his conviction.

In private, Pastor Paul and his wife Elizabeth (Erika Lavonn) feel the ripples of his public declaration. The strength of their beliefs in each other begin to battle against each of their religious beliefs which leads to an incredibly endearing and difficult scene between the two of them. Lavonn gives a stirring and poised performance as a Pastor’s Wife who is not content to merely sit on the sidelines.

Paul Deboy delivers a poised, searching, and emphatically laudable performance as Pastor Paul. You begin wondering if they cast a real pastor instead of an actor. Deboy never had to raise his voice to raise his opinions, which is a testament to both him and the writer. The actors all spoke into handheld corded microphones, making them reliant on the church to be heard, and never left the cross-lined walls, even in the most private moments. Parts of the story were narrated by Pastor Paul, which ended up making the entire story feel almost like a parable, being told by an unruly disciple. The conventions succeed and help to keep the audience focused on the words and arguments instead of theatrical tricks.

The lighting, by Thom Weaver, is cleverly done with the lights staying up on the audience until the moments become more and more private and the foundation of the once strong church begins to crumble. It is a visual metaphor for the claustrophobic and isolating feeling Pastor Paul is experiencing into the end. The set, designed by Matt Saunders is nothing short of scarily accurate. It is the spitting image of the churches so many attend every Sunday. Costumes by Helen Q. Huang are wonderfully crafted and help to feed into the Every Church idea.

The Christians takes on challenging theological ideals and instead of spoon-feeding a playwright’s answers to the audience, challenges them to come to their own conclusions. As audience member, you leave the theatre with more questions than when you arrived, the mark of a wickedly smart production. Lucas Hnath takes the safe-haven of a church, where most people go for respite and community, and gives us a battle ground of complex characters, logically inconsistent arguments, and no resolution to the questions posed. This isn’t about perfect people with perfect arguments, it’s about real people with imperfect logic. The Christians puts the responsibility on the audience and gives no reprieve or apologies.

Running Time: 85 minutes, with no intermission.

The Christians plays through May 29, 2016 at the Wilma Theater – 265 South Broad Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call (215) 546-7824, or purchase them online.