To see a megachurch altar constructed in the corner of Mixed Blood Theatre is to be reminded that churches themselves are theaters: built to bring us together and to focus our attention on a predictable drama. In Lucas Hnath's play The Christians, that drama takes an unexpected turn.
Mixed Blood Theatre
Presented by Walking Shadow Theatre Company in association with Mixed Blood, The Christians begins as a worship service on what seems to be a joyful day. The vast church complex, its sanctuary full to brimming with worshippers, has finally been completely paid for — thanks to congregants' donations, announces a grateful Pastor Paul (Andrew Erskine Wheeler). Paul begins a sermon, but his preaching suddenly departs from the church's established theology. Are his listeners ready to join him in this new faith?
Most are, it initially seems; but undoing millennia of Christian teaching isn't that easy, Paul finds. One of those unwilling to entertain Paul's new orthodoxy is associate pastor Joshua (Kory LaQuess Pullam), who breaks away and takes dozens of believers with him. Joshua's departure leaves the church Elders, led by Jay (Charles Numrich), shaken. The choir — onstage throughout all of this, their faces reflecting the awkwardness of the situation — includes a young mother named Jenny (Brittany Parker), who wonders about the seemingly convenient timing of Paul's revelation.
Director Amy Rummenie makes the congregation's challenge captivating. The Christians unfolds, for its first half, within the frame of the worship service: Paul's interactions with Joshua and Jay are interspersed with the choir's songs of humble belief. Everyone uses a hand-held microphone, a theatrical device that serves to remind us of the constant attention of an unseen throng.
Paul seems sincere, but by the play's midpoint, the pastor's unexamined privilege threatens to undercut our empathy. It's clear that Paul's middle-class, middle-aged, male perspective in this patriarchal, predominantly white church is different than that of Joshua, a black man who's a convert to the faith, and Paul's wife, Elizabeth (Bonni Allen), whose job is to echo her husband's teaching in her women's Bible study group.
Hnath understands that Paul's presumptuous relationships with these characters have to be addressed, and they are. The play's conclusion — different in staging and tone than its beginning, the transition signaled not by an intermission but by a dramatic development I won't reveal for fear of spoiling the plot — is fascinating yet frustrating, ultimately testing our patience with an extended series of encounters that seem to be searching for an ending.
Of course, that's part of Hnath's point: Faith is a journey, not a destination. Paul's initial strident confidence gives way to dogged persistence and ultimately to anguish. Wheeler is strong in a demanding role, and Pullam and Allen both give their all to intimate and explosive confrontations.
It's the unassuming Parker, though, whose poignant character Jenny makes perhaps the greatest impact. She's not a leader, just a congregant, so unused to making public statements that she brings a written text to read aloud. A working-class woman who's done more than tithe, Jenny discovers with quiet anger that her church is built not on a rock but on shifting sands.