Farmers Alleys does Lucas Hnath’s ‘The Christians’ proud
KALAMAZOO, Mich.–Church and theater are natural bedfellows. For many churchgoers, their weekly service fulfills the very human need for ritual and performance at once. For the live drama enthusiasts among us, being audience to the magic of the theater is far more than an entertainment choice—and at best feels like connection to something much larger than us. And in major U.S. cities old theaters have been taken over by churches; in Kalamazoo, local theater companies regularly put on performances in local churches.
But Farmers Alley Theatre’s current production of The Christians, the Michigan premiere of Lucas Hnath’s compelling and widely acclaimed new work, gracefully directed by D. Terry Williams, even more deliberately blurs the line between church and theater. In this tale that goes surprisingly deep to raise questions about the differences between spirituality and religion, the audience becomes the congregation of an evangelical mega-church in a quiet yet wildly dramatic moment of revolution.
The 90-minute show begins with house lights up as the choir soulfully sings the foreshadowing “I wish somebody’s soul would catch on fire, burning with the holy ghost,” while surrounding a glowing floor-to-ceiling cross that looks as if it’s made of Wheel of Fortune tiles. With a pulpit and microphones center stage; an excellent three-piece band led by Music Director Jeremiah Downes stage right, and television screens on either side of the stage projecting Bible verses, sermon notes, and images of stained glass and doves, among other tranquil Christian symbols; the stage is set for the Pentecostal crisis of faith, though not necessarily in God, that is to come.
It is the day that the church’s debt is finally paid. Pastor Paul, played with elegant conviction and charisma by Scott Crownover, tells the congregation, and then proceeds to frame the change of direction he’s chosen for the church. He shares two anecdotes that turn out to be defining moments: meeting his now wife on an airplane, and witnessing a child burn to death for having saved his sister’s life. The latter was while working as a missionary, and when Pastor Paul realized this child, having not been “saved” yet by the missionaries, would himself go to hell, according to Church teachings, Paul came to a different conclusion. The upshot: his congregation will no longer believe in hell.
Everyone in his church feels a certain kind of way about this, most notably his associate pastor, powerfully portrayed by Fox Worth; his wife, the utterly sympathetic yet quietly contrary Lisa Abott; a church elder played by Ron Dundon; and an impassioned congregant with a lot on the line who rejects any smattering of hypocrisy and wants answers, captured beautifully by Dwandra Nickole Lampkin.
Some of the confrontational scenes play out publicly during church service, and others take place in private, though the characters deliberately use hand-held microphones, and at times Paul narrates the conversations, illustrating that all of it is performance, all the time, and forcibly so, for him. Even his own discernment regarding the voice of God cannot be private.
It’s a moving and compelling production, full of magnificent language use and careful repetition that, even above the subject matter, gives this literary script power. Dan Guyette’s scenic design and Kristen Chesak’s lights work beautifully together to work on a symbolic level: the enormous checkered diamonds on either side of the cross upstage transform into a set of dice when the church is empty and the conversations become more intimate.
This is a gamble with the highest of stakes for these characters—with, of course, implications for all of humanity. And regardless of where we, the audience, the congregants, stand on matters of heaven and hell, good and evil, and in relation to fire and brimstone, we are wonderfully wrapped up in the implicit and inevitable drama of what will come of Christians in the face of radical change?