Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Pastor Paul (Paul DeBoy) ministers to an ever-growing flock in an unspecified corner of middle America. One Sunday morning, receiving what he describes as a message from God, he preaches "a radical change": his congregation will no longer acknowledge the literal or figurative existence of Hell. God's love is so mighty that it forgives all trespasses, Paul reasons; even the worst unsaved sinner can sit at God's right hand. But this doesn't sit well with the man who sits at Pastor Paul's right hand: his associate pastor Brother Joshua (DeLance Minefee), whom Paul had personally saved five years earlier.
Brother Joshua may be younger than Pastor Paul, but his youth betrays a more traditional, fire-and-brimstone reading of the gospels. If the wages of sin are not deaththe men clash over whether "death", in this instance, is synonymous with damnationthen what is the point of ministering at all? These questions subsume the congregation, which include Pastor Paul's wife (Erika LaVonn) and the devoted director of the church's board of elders (Ames Adamson), as Brother Joshua splinters off with a group of like-minded parishioners, and those left behind are forced to question how much faith to put in their leader.
Hnath and director Timothy Bond ingeniously play with cognitive dissonance throughout the breathless ninety minutes, having all scenes enacted on the altar of the church's sanctuary, whether they took place there or not. A large onstage choir (under the able musical direction of Michael G. Keck) interjects roof-rousing spirituals at regular intervals, simultaneously alleviating and maintaining the tension created in the play's most fraught moments. Nearly all of the dialogue is spoken into handheld microphones, and the subtle yet noticeable overmodulation of voices breeds an uncertainty in the audience of what is and is not genuine.
The actors, too, expertly convey the chaos into which Pastor Paul's revelation throws the church. DeBoy's performance husbands all of the familiar tropes of megachurch preachers: the vigorous yet dulcet voice, the emotive body language. Yet he also excels at communicating his own doubt about the recent change he has foisted on his flock. Sometimes those who are the most certain can project the most doubtwhich is also an evident element in Minefee's performance, which is both charismatic and haunting.
As Sister Elizabeth, Paul's seemingly devoted wife, LaVonn shows how much a gifted actor can do with silence and reaction. She spends much of the play supporting her husband with her presence, if not her words; she doesn't say her first line of dialogue until the play is more than three-quarters over. But when she is given the opportunity to make her thoughts known, she grabs it, and the audience is aware of the enormity and specificity of her performance. Likewise, Julie Jesneck, a standout as part of the choir, is devastating when she stands to give a testimonial, and reveals the depths to which the change in doctrine, as well as her decision to remain in the church, has affected her life.
The Christians does not offer easy answers about what it means to have conviction in your beliefs, or what it means to be part of a religious community. It leaves as many questions as answers, and does not shy away from doubtmuch like religion itself.
The Christians continues through Sunday, May 29, 2016, at Wilma Theater (265 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia). Tickets for all performances are $25 ($10 for students and theater industry professionals), and can be purchased online www.wilmatheater.org, by phone (215-546-7824), or at the box office.