SF Playhouse presents Lucas Hnath’s drama about an evangelical pastor who questions beliefs fundamental to his faith.
“There is no hell,” Pastor Paul, head of an evangelical mega-church, abruptly informs his congregation early on in Lucas Hnath’s drama “The Christians.” He believes that God has spoken to him by way of a voice, deep within, that says “there is no reason to tell people that they’re going to hell. Because they are in hell. They are already there. You gotta take them out of the hell they’re already in.” Unsurprisingly, his congregants are bewildered by this sudden pronouncement that refutes their core beliefs.
The 2014 play, a Bay Area premiere at San Francisco Playhouse, immediately captivated the company’s artistic director Bill English, when he saw it at the Humana Festival of New Plays in Louisville, Kentucky. “I walked straight out and said, ‘I want to do this,’” reports English, who has been fighting for the performing rights to it ever since. “It’s a perfect bingo for our approach to theater: enhancing opportunities for compassion in our culture.”
The play also spoke to English’s own background: His parents were church musicians and he attended church while growing up in Evanston, Illinois. But he says he tuned out mainstream Christian teaching at an early age. “When I saw this show, I thought, This is my play. It takes a radical approach to Christianity…a form of Christianity that avoids punishment.”
Pastor Paul (played by American Conservatory Theater mainstay Anthony Fusco), the well-liked head of his successful church, feels compelled to put forth the message he has received, and that compulsion gradually takes a devastating toll on his relationship with his wife (Stephanie Prentice); his young associate pastor (Lance Gardner), who takes the Bible quite literally; a respected elder of the church (Warren David Keith); and ultimately the entire congregation, as represented by one despairing congregant (Millie DeBenedet). The pastor, says English, is “very much a down-home guy, not a holy roller. He’s a picket-fence middle American, simple, honest, matter-of-fact, low-key…. He feels he’s been told to make a huge change—he doesn’t know where the voice is coming from, but he knows he has to trust it.…It’s a play about faith, and what faith means, and about community and how our beliefs make us a community.”
Little by little, Pastor Paul’s formerly rock-solid congregation struggles to come to terms with its leader’s new dictum.
“We believe in Satan, and we believe in Satan because the Bible tells us Satan is real,” argues his associate pastor.
The distraught congregant questions the pastor’s motives in suddenly announcing the non-existence of hell.
“I believe in hell,” his wife finally tells him.
“Our beliefs are mostly the same,” protests the pastor. “No, no, they’re not,” replies his wife.
These characters are sincere believers, never caricatures or outsized personalities, not a fire-and-brimstoner nor a Tammy Faye Bakker among them. Hnath himself, now in his mid-30s, was raised in Orlando in an evangelical church and thought he’d be a preacher. Instead, he’s a longtime resident playwright with New Dramatists who’s received multiple awards and had his work staged at such theaters as Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York and the Royal Court Theatre. “The Christians,” his 11th play, has been produced at the Gate Theatre in London, at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and elsewhere.
Neither satirical nor comedic—although it has funny moments—nor strictly realistic, “The Christians,” according to the playwright, borrows its structure from Greek drama: a live, volunteer,16-voice choir (from the First Unitarian Universalist Church led by choir directors Tania Johnson and Mark Sumner) is braided throughout, interspersed with the pastor’s sermon and the tense, troubled dialogue (it is, however, not a Greek chorus in the sense of actually commenting on the play’s action). The pastor partly narrates, with the theater audience initially seeming to take on the role of the church congregation.
To add to a sense of larger-than-life amplification, all the text is spoken through microphones, even, for example, when the pastor and his wife are at home, a tactic that creates the effect of every conversation actually taking place in the church itself. “The mics are an important stylistic element of the show,” observes English. “They give you the possibility of speaking incredibly intimately, basically whispering, and being heard in the back row. And it gives audiences a little [needed] distance from the play—a lot of us are turned off to modern Christianity.
“This is a play about faith and what faith means, and about community, and how our beliefs make us a community,” concludes English. “It’s not really about Christianity—it’s about belief, change and compassion. This could be any church, [any faith]. It’s about a person within that world who wants to make a huge change to the way a particular belief system is practiced, and what that causes…it’s about the belief systems we share and what happens when they end.”