The Christians (Syracuse Stage, 2016)

(Photo credit: Mike Davis)
(Photo credit: Mike Davis)

Lucas Hnath’s The Christians is a messy, near-masterpiece. Although Syracuse Stage’s production of the work falls short in a few ways, it stirs the audience to discomfort (intellectual pot-stirring being a noble theatrical aspiration.) It’s their best show this season.

Entering the auditorium, we encounter Matt Saunders’ brilliant set, an eerily precise replica of a certain type of church – all blonde wood, vacuumed blue carpet, and tasteful, subdued foliage. It produced a visceral, somewhat horrified reaction in me, longtime congregant amidst similar funeral-home chic. Thom Weaver’s lighting was as crappy as lighting in those environments usually is – bright and just slightly “off.” I mean that as a compliment, but Weaver missed the chance to vary his approach during several less literal scenes.

A choir entered, and an organist. They sang, with lyrics projected on screens to each side. Women on both sides of me joined in. The house lights remained up, and the pastoral staff entered the stage; we might have been in an actual church, witnessing a real service. An opening prayer was offered, and many in the audience heeded the request to bow their heads – “Amen” was heard throughout the room as the prayer concluded. Paul DeBoy stood to begin his sermon, and I doubt I was the only one experiencing déjà vu – his bearing and intonation (kind but smug, almost imperceptibly condescending) were perfect. His message could have been delivered in any progressive church (I’ve heard versions of it before.)

The sermon is the crux of Hnath’s plot. Pastor Paul says he’s been troubled by the concept of hell, and has concluded that a literal Hell doesn’t exist. He supports this with Bible verses, explaining how the texts have been misinterpreted in the past. The women on both sides of me got very quiet in a “shit just got real” way – we were absorbing his points and thinking “he might have a point,” even as we glanced around, seeing which of our neighbors might be getting upset. The verisimilitude was overpowering – absolute brilliance on the playwright’s part.

The associate pastor stands and challenges the pastor’s doctrinal assertions. They duel, a Scriptural face-off that plays like a battle of sorts. Hnath begins to let us inside Pastor Paul’s head, while the action continues in real time. This is one sequence where director Tim Bond doesn’t do enough – the nature of the intellectual face-off and the pastor’s asides cry out for theatrical artifice, which Bond doesn’t provide. In fact, Bond’s efforts to maximize the realism of the church setting overlook how theatrical liturgy is to begin with; for example, a congregation with the economic resources implied by the script would illuminate and amplify its choir more theatrically. (The one concession to artifice is that every character uses a handheld, wired microphone when speaking, even during scenes not set in the church – it’s effective at showing how every interaction is in some way a public proclamation; the characters are always delivering their testimonies.)

I was amazed at how many points Hnath raised. The program says his first career goal was preacher, and I suspect he had years of questions and observations to draw on. Among other things, he wonders how our religious faith is impacted by environment, how the cost of professing faith impacts belief, how do we know what comes from God and what arises from our own imagination; my favorite question is whether we (the congregation) prefer justice over mercy. The play never takes sides – somehow, we can see many angles in a given scene, and still be surprised by yet another reasonable point the next moment. I didn’t expect where Hnath ended up – despite his noble motivation and efforts, the pastor finds himself in remarkably different circumstances by the end. (The play is arguably a tragedy.)

I don’t know if it was intentional, but attendance was unusually sparse at last night’s performance. That reinforced the sense of reality during the second half of the play, when the congregation has split over the doctrinal issues raised. At some point, the house lights were turned down, although I wasn’t aware of when it happened. For much of the performance, I didn’t move at all (I’m usually restless), riveted to the drama in front of me. When the house lights finally came back up and the bows finished (the choir didn’t return, maybe for logistical reasons, and it struck me that the piece might have been even more devastating with no bows), we stood and left the theater, distinctly quiet and awkward around our fellow congregants. Then, driving home, I talked and talked and talked about what I’d seen. A great show.