Regional Reviews: St. Louis
The ninety-minute play won an Outer Critics Circle Award for outstanding new Off-Broadway play in 2016, and begins with the look and feel of a Sunday morning service in a modern Protestant megachurch. But everything starts to fall apart when Pastor Paul (played by a meta-smooth and media-savvy Joel Moses) makes two announcements: 1) the church is finally debt-free, after lengthy, gigantic expansion projects; and 2) he no longer believes in the concept of eternal damnation in Hell.
The latter is a deal breaker for much of his flock. But not everyone abandons Pastor Paul simply because the church might have been held together by the threat of never-ending torment at the hands of devils with pitchforks. And (equally surprising) not everyone's idea of hell is quite the same thing, even in this bible-and-Brilliantine denomination. Joseph Garner provides an excellent opposing force as Associate Pastor Joshua, the youth preacher with a tribal haircut, who begins the breakaway.
Hnath's writing has an occasional rhythmic, echoing sound to it in The Christians, as if leading us down into a catacomb of troubled faith. And the other characters on stage, representing different kinds of collapse in Pastor Paul's life, almost seem to come to life one by one, like enchanted plaster saints arranged for announcements and a sermon, under the patient, stark-yes-I-said-stark direction of Ms. Schwetye. Rachel Hanks sits patiently until her justly deliciously lengthy and perfectly irresistible emotional/cerebral performance begins. Marriage-shattering scenes make it worth the wait, painfully excavating the last bits of self from Paul's soul, as the disaster around them gradually consumes them all. What's your idea of hell?
Chrissie Watkins is heartbreaking as a parishioner who gave her trust to a fallible preacher and who lays bare her painful sacrifices for the church. And Michael Byrd is very fine as the church board member who witnesses the unraveling up close and must eventually deliver the board's painful judgment on the man who built it all.
The play presents each modern Pentecostal as a thoughtful individual, and a fear of Hell isn't the only thing holding their church together. There's lots of other fear. However, there is no singing in this production, as would almost invariably be the case on an actual Sunday morning. There's how you make it two full hours, I suppose. They didn't here. Still a great show.
In fact, the various accounts of what each one feels hell is, or could be, or the hell they're going through for the sake of the church, are all spoken. And these stories dredge up something completely different in each of them. Perhaps, given all the fundamental disagreements over the definition of the Underworld, a schism would be inevitable. The new production smashes an alabaster egg in each of them, to release the holy oil inside.
The Christians runs through December 11, 2022, at the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 North Union Blvd., St. Louis MO. Face masks, to reduce the spread of COVID-19, are recommended. For tickets and information please visit www.westendplayers.org.