Never discuss politics or religion with friends, they say – but if Lucas Hnath’s play, The Christians, is anything to go by, you should avoid discussing the fundamentals of religion in church as well, particularly beliefs and how they’re interpreted!
You have to hand it to Playhouse Directors, Bill English and Susi Damilano, they’re not shy about tackling what could be construed as a bit of a thorny topic – and The Christians most definitely falls into that category.
Pastor Paul (an admirably authentic portrayal by Anthony Fusco) is head of a burgeoning church which, over 10 years, has grown from modest beginnings to a place of worship for thousands of believers. As the play opens, he has decided to throw the proverbial cat among the pigeons by delivering a sermon which questions the very foundation of what most Christians believe about their faith.
The young Associate Pastor, Joshua (in a fine performance by Lance Gardner), is quick to take issue with Pastor Paul over his audacity at even raising the question, much less the alternate interpretation on offer – and the inevitable fissure which has been opened threatens to become wider and more destructive as their dispute continues.
Jay, one of the church Elders, in a dignified and measured performance by Warren David Keith, takes Pastor Paul aside for a quiet heart-to-heart, in an attempt to smooth things over, but the situation reaches boiling point when one of the choristers steps up to the lectern to give a testimony, and in so doing raises an even more pertinent question about Pastor Paul’s character. Millie Brooks is splendid as Jenny, an (initially) engaging young single mother who becomes ever more impassioned as she gets to the heart of her denunciation.
Stephanie Prentice gives a beautifully controlled performance as Elizabeth, Pastor Paul’s adoring wife, who inevitably becomes drawn into the emotional maelstrom of the tumultuous proceedings.
Bill English is to be commended for his taut direction which keeps the audience spellbound as this catastrophe unfolds, and the voices of the volunteer members of the First Unitarian Church Choir add a lovely touch of authenticity to the production.
The Christians runs at the San Francisco Playhouse until March 11th. For more information, and for tickets, visit the SF Playhouse website.
All photographs © Jessica Palopoli