Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The Christians deals headlong with a strongly Christian, fundamentalist leaning church and what happens when its leader begins to question some of its assumptions. Having started out in a small store-front church, charismatic Pastor Paul has guided the growth of his church to a congregation of over a thousand, in a beautiful, state of the art building that has just been paid for through an ambitious fund-raising campaign. He takes the occasion of the Sunday sermon celebrating the retirement of the building fund debt to reveal the train of thought that has led him to reject the notion that only fellow believers will be granted grace in their life after death, and that the concept of hell is neither logical nor grounded in bible verse. It is his intent to move the church, as a whole, in the direction of his newly found "truth."
Pastor Paul's sermon shocks the congregation, starting with Associate Pastor Joshua, once Paul's protégé, who is unable to accept on any terms Paul's new ideas. Their conflict starts a schism in the church that extends to the Board of Elders (represented by Brother Jay, head of the board), a wide swath of church members (represented by Jenny, a single-parent for whom the church has been a haven of support), and even Paul's marriage to Elizabeth, first seen as an adoring and dutiful preacher's wife until the dam holding back her own beliefs and fears breaks open.
Pastor Paul's sermon and Associate Pastor Joshua's response are in and of themselves weighty matter for a play. Yet, while the context of The Christians is a Christian churchand Hnath has written dialogue and stage action that depict this setting with great felicitythe play really addresses a larger issue, that is, whether there is room for multiple perspectives within a single community. To what degree are certain beliefs required of all who claim membership in that community? Who decides what beliefs those are? When is change a positive force, and when does it undermine the very nature of purpose and identity? These issues can be applied to any faith community, and certainly have been fiercely argued in relation to our current season of political campaigning.
The play begins with a "church choir" on stage, singing several rousing songscontemporary Christian music, with the words appearing on monitorsthat set a tone of jubilation and goodness, an expectation that within these walls all will be well. Pastor Paul, his wife Elizabeth, Associate Pastor Joshua, and Elder Jay mingle with the audience, greeting some as fellow travelers on this spiritual path before stepping up to the altar and taking their seats in the kind of plush chairs that create a sense of enduring strength and power as viewed by the church members in the pewsor in this case, the audience in the theater. Amy Rummenie directs this procession and transition from pageant to play with a solid sense of how these things are experienced. Her direction perfectly draws out the play, with seamless transitions and an energy that builds as we witness the growing upheaval created by Paul allowing his thoughts to veer beyond established boundaries.
The five principal actors are each perfect for their parts. Andrew Erskine Wheeler is wonderful as Pastor Paul, exuding the necessary charm and charisma, and with hubris enough to believe his flock would follow where he leads. As Joshua, Kory LaQuess Pullman conveys the staunch posture of one who has built his life upon his beliefs, and with enough charisma of his own to be believable as a challenge to Paul's prominence. Veteran actor Charles Numrich perfectly plays Elder Jay. Taking a politician's tack, he minces words and circumvents issues, trying to pacify all sides, but the look of disgust he gives Paul when the preacher finally goes too far is one of the most telling moments I have seen on any stage this season.
Bonni Allen as Elizabeth is the perfect picture of a prim preacher's wife, dressed in a pink skirt and jacket set, smiling and nodding from her chair behind Paul as he delivers his sermon. Only when she finally reveals her own thoughts, beliefs, hopes, and fears do we see how much more there is to this woman than first met the eye, and Allen taps convincingly into Elizabeth's strength. As Jenny, Brittany Parker brings us immediately to her side, creating sympathy for a woman trying to make sense of massive shifts in the world she had come to depend on. When she raises concern about her duty to nurture her young daughter's soul, we feel how fraught Jenny is over making the right decision. The eight member choir not only sing (quite beautifully) but act throughout their scenes on stage, visibly responding to Paul's startling proclamations, to Joshua's rebuttal, and to Jenny's testimony. The same is true of the church piano player, Rick Bernardo.
Hnath is a young playwright with a phenomenal ability to unspool the complexity of the fabric of contemporary life. His play Death Tax seen last spring at the Pillsbury House Theatre, addresses issues around end-of-life care and the ethical questions raised by ever-increased life expectancy. His more recent work Red Speedo (not yet seen in the Twin Cities) is about the use of performance enhancing drugs in sports. The Christians tackles our ability to be as diverse and inclusive as our national rhetoric purports us to be, if it means we cannot claim a monopoly on truth. It is important, it is timely, it is wonderfully written and superbly mounted. A solid achievement by any measure!
The Christians, a Walking Shadow Theatre Company production, continues at the Mixed Blood Theatre through June 11, 2016. 1501 S. Fourth Street, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets: advance sale - $22.00, $20.00 for seniors; at the door: $26.00, $24.00 seniors; $15.00 students; $18.00 for MN Fringe button holders at select performances; $10.00 Economic Accessibility Tickets (advance sale only). Call 612-375-0300 or go to walkingshadowcompany.org.
Writer: Lucas Hnath; Director: Amy Rummenie; Scenic Designer: Eli Schlatter; Costume Designer: Sara Wilcox; Lighting Designer: William P. Healey; Video Designer: Megan Reilly; Sound Designer: Eric Wigham; Music Director: Shelly Domke; Choir Mistress: Sophia Bauer; ; Stage Manager: Penny Laden Kissinger; Assistant Director: John Stephens; Assistant Stage Manager: Rachael Gay; Assistant Costume Designer: Emma Downey.
Cast: Bonni Allen (Elizabeth), Charles Numrich (Jay), Brittany Parker (Jenny), Kory LaQuess Pullman (Associate Pastor Joshua), Andrew Erskine Wheeler (Pastor Paul).
Choir: Sophia Bauer, Sue Gerver, Siri Hammond, Anika Kulander, Anita Mack, Lily Noonan, Jessica Thompson Passaro, Alex Yang; Pianist: Rick Bernardo.