Cadence Theatre Company's production of Lucas Hnath's "The Christians" is a thought-provoking contribution to this year's Acts of Faith Festival. Hnath's script examines the fallout of a congregational divide that takes place when the pastor of a Christian fundamentalist megachurch delivers a sermon calling for more Universalist beliefs.
A series of reported conversations between the pastor and his colleagues, congregants and wife detail the slow crumbling of his community. The questions the characters ask and hope to answer are primarily ones of faith, knowledge and interpretation. But the play asks larger questions about the dynamics of a social institution based on something as personal as faith.
The play opens with a jazz choir inviting the audience to join in singing a set of rousing hymns which give way to the divisive sermon, followed by lengthy personal testimony. There may be many voices and bodies onstage, but the story comes from the perspective of Pastor Paul, a narrator who constantly reminds us that we are settled firmly into his perspective. He tells this story, providing exposition, speech tags and narrative summary throughout.
In a play where the drama lies in characters questioning the motives behind a protagonist's decisions, choosing to present those conversations from only the protagonist's perspective creates doubt in the audience. It also mirrors the way in which a congregation looks to its leaders to point them towards truth -- something that might appear different, depending on one's perspective.
Director Rusty Wilson's vision is beautifully executed and every detail counts, right down to the program, which details a Sunday service instead of the scenes. Rich Mason's scenic and video design transform the intimate space at the Theatre Gym into a miniature megachurch complete with fake stained glass windows along the walls and a beige-carpeted, stepped stage. The production is naturalistic in this sense: to step into the theater is to step into the church. But the space is also strange and dreamy like a memory, thanks to Andrew Bonniwell's brilliant lighting design.
One of my favorite set elements in this production is the wooden cross that hangs between two enormous screens, backlit with neon lighting; an advertisement embodying the dichotomy between humble, religious iconography and flashing lights enticing folks to come on in, it's open for business. This is a megachurch, remember, and it lives off the contributions of its congregants — yet another reason to doubt our narrator.
The production boasts a bevy of notable performances. Bostin Christopher commands the stage across long stretches of sustained monologue in a measured, nuanced performance as Pastor Paul. Brandon Carter's earnest portrayal of Associate Pastor Joshua is perfect, and the reactions of Bev Appleton as Elder Jay and Addie Barnhart as the Wife during the sermon are some of my favorite moments. Sanam Hashemi is sweet and articulate as the congregant who asks the questions Pastor Paul cannot answer.
John Winn's musical direction is at the heart of this production, providing musical interludes between scenes and punctuating the storytelling with some very good church music. Jessi Johnson's vocals are, as always, a delight, and singing along is a fun way to bring the audience into the story.
Interactive, engaging and brimming with food for thought, Cadence Theatre's "The Christians" is smart, provocative and not to be missed. S
Cadence Theatre's "The Christians" runs until March 4. Tickets cost $40. cadencetheatre.org.