Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Also see Gil's reviews of Dogfight and Masters of the Musical Theater with Hugh Panaro, Anne Runolfsson and Scarlett Strallen
The 90-minute, one-act drama centers on the engaging Pastor Paul, whose membership grew so large over the years that the church board had to build a mega-church in order to hold the congregation. One Sunday, Paul tells the thousands in attendance the good news that the church has paid off its debt for building the church ten years before and then tells the moving story he heard at a church conference of a young man who died after rescuing his sister from a fire. That story, which he says prompted a conversation he had with God, made him come to the realization that he no longer believes there is such thing as hell, and going forward the policy of the church and his teachings will be to not believe in it as well.
That declaration doesn't sit well with some of the congregants, including his associate pastor Joshua, who ends up starting his own church at the local YMCA with many of the church's members who follow him there. It also makes Jay, one of the church's elders, question his and his fellow board members' trust in Paul. Jenny, a young, poor, single mother who says Paul's church has given her a safe place to feel welcome, also wrestles with Paul's decision and asks him if the timing of his statement had anything to do with the debt being paid off. Did he intentionally wait to make his feelings about hell known until after they'd all given their money to help the church pay off the debt? And what about Hitler? If Paul says hell doesn't exist, does that mean Hitler is in heaven? Even Paul's wife is scared to lean about what else he believes in that he hasn't told her.
Hnath has crafted an intriguing play that examines how one man's faith can have a major impact on others and possibly tear them apart, especially when that man is the leader of a church. But it also touches upon many other topics, including trust, understanding, and just how willing one should be to compromise their beliefs. Hnath isn't afraid to tackle some major issues of organized religion, specifically how certain phrases and passages in the Bible can be interpreted in vastly different ways, but he doesn't attempt to belittle or make fun of religion and how it can be used as a way for people to connect with each other, bring them together, and for them to find a place of comfort. He has created characters who are very realistic, while also clearly having them serve as specific archetypes, with each presenting an authentic voice and purpose, to get his points across. However, it's not an entirely perfect work with a few bits of spoken narration from Paul that detract from the narrative, a few choral pieces sung by the church choir which, while realistic for a church service, slow the drama down, and an ending that could be sharper.
The play is written to be, mostly, performed as a church service, with the audience serving as members of the church and the characters speaking directly to the congregation in the Sunday service, which helps provide a firm connection between the characters and the audience. Director Richard Powers Hardt does a very good job in drawing performances from his actors that are sharp and distinct. He also stages the action in a completely natural fashion on the simple but smart set which he also designed.
Tom Koelbel expertly plays Paul as the assured but level-headed pastor with a measured tone of speaking that is engaging and powerful and that draws you into the stories he tells. Paul never talks down to or denigrates those around him and doesn't attempt to force his beliefs on them. Koelbel always lets us see that Paul respects those he speaks to, even when their beliefs aren't in agreement.
Jacob Nichols does an excellent job in depicting how Joshua wrestles with the declaration Paul makes in his sermon. Nichols' portrayal, along with Alexandra Utpadel's performance as congregant Jenny, beautifully represent how people can feel conflicted when they find themselves struggling with the notion that what they've been taught by their mentors to believe is now being represented as no longer correct. Utpadel's performance of a woman who feels used is beautiful and moving, yet also sad when we see from the pain in her eyes how she also feels completely lost after Paul's declaration. As Paul's wife Elizabeth, Jessica Fishell at first projects the familiar image of a pastor's wife, a poised woman who stands by his side with a smile on her face, but we quickly learn that she is just as conflicted as many other members of the congregation, even though her husband says that he's only doing what he believes God has told him to do. Charles Sowder is firm, direct and clear in his portrayal of Jay, the church elder and board member.
Over time, people evolve, and their views and beliefs, including their religious beliefs, may evolve as well. You only have to look at the recent news of the probability that the United Methodist Church will split into conservative and liberal branches over their views toward homosexuality to see that Hnath's play is timely and relevant. The Christians is a very interesting work infused with humanity and care which, though not completely perfect, will most likely have you thinking of the topics it brings up and debating the themes for days after you see it.
The Christians runs through February 9, 2020, at The Theatre Artists Studio, 4848 East Cactus Road, Scottsdale AZ. Tickets are on sale at www.TheStudioPHX.org or by calling 602-765-0120.
Director/Set Design: Richard Powers Hardt