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There is a time-worn adage which says one should never discuss politics or religion. Particularly these days, as fractures within the largest faith in the US – Christianity – have divided people into liberal and conservative camps, mainstream denominations and evangelical start-ups, small worship environments and mega-churches, the danger of debate is evident everywhere from social media to political campaigns. Many works of theater have attempted to address the swirling issues involved: faith, money, salvation, adaptability (or lack of it) and practical business which define modern religion in the US. Few have jumped into the central argument with both feet as thoroughly as Lucas Hnath’s award-winning “The Christians,” now arrived at the Mark Taper Forum.
The plot proves deceptively simple. You are invited into the service of a massive mega-church to hear a sermon by Paul, it’s founder. In that sermon, he admits to having had to confront an essential tenet of the faith he has professed, and announces a change in belief, and thus direction, which he feels will be a more faithful interpretation of God’s word. And this is where the fracturing begins. As playwright Hnath states in an introduction to the piece, “putting… beliefs into words will always result in a misinterpretation of said beliefs.” And as his associate pastors, his parishioners, even his wife struggle with change, rift, and for some a sense of betrayal, the entire underlay of belief shows its raw, unfinished edges.
Andrew Garman makes Paul a man of deep sincerity whose sense of assuredness – of being able to take his followers with him on what they will see as a radical journey – shows you how the character gathered such a flock, at the same time it also makes him unable to see how fragile his hold really is. These same people may easily fall away from changes in something they consider their rock. As the antithesis to Paul’s belief, Larry Powell gives great heart to associate pastor – a man whose faith was formed at Paul’s feet, and whose more narrow passion for the mission of the church leaves him with no room for the sudden shifts in his personal foundations.
Exemplifying the terrible cost of change upon parishioners of any church which offers absolute answers to the questions of its followers is Emily Donahoe as a single mother torn between supporting her long-time pastor and a desperate need for a community she now sees moving away from him. Philip Kerr, as a church trustee, brings in the financial realities – what happens when the monetary base for a hugely complex ministry is shaken by dissent and rifts. And in a last, but particularly powerful set of scenes, Linda Powell brings the struggle of the supportive wife whose beliefs no longer sync with her husband’s. What are her choices in this situation?
Staged as a riff off of a classic mega-church Sunday service, thanks to Dane Laffrey’s evocatively stark set, the production balances the rather cerebral and pointed conversations with the uplifting music of a gospel choir led with style by Scott Anthony. Director Les Waters has a feel for this juxtaposing of the public and private, and the piece moves with the constancy of a well-oiled religious experience, even as it questions much of what that experience means. The play is performed without an intermission, letting the tension rise as expectations would have in a service. The very beauty of this show’s “construction” makes it particularly engaging.
Of course, even that pales next to the potential inner struggles one can hear within the audience itself, as some look in from the outside, some find themselves siding with one element or another of this potent and unfinishable argument. Most certainly it will offend some, satisfy others and leave many with a lot to talk about after the play is over. I strongly suggest (and I never do this) that one read the introduction by the playwright in the program itself, as it lays groundwork for openness and gives one more access to the play’s essential points just by setting a mindset ahead of time.
“The Christians” is powerful, in its intertwining of intellect and passion. As such, it does what theater does so well – make people think, ponder their own understandings, share with others and, regardless of viewpoint, become emotionally engaged in either the concept or the characters, or both. Don’t go to see an easy play, but go to see one which will stick with you.
What: “The Christians” When: Through January 10, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $85 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org