Review: “The Christians” (Steppenwolf Theatre)

Charlie Strater, Jaret Landon, Jacqueline Williams, Mary-Margaret Roberts, Faith Howards, Jazelle Morriss, Yando Lopez, Robert Brueler/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

Show: “The Christians”

Company: Steppenwolf Theatre

Venue: 1650 N Halsted

“I want to stay with you forever.”

This is a deceptively simple declaration, appropriate for wedding ceremonies and vocational commitments. In “The Christians,” the words are spoken by a disenchanted minister’s wife. She fears she will not be able to spend eternity with her husband Paul, because he has publicly stated that he no longer believes in hell, and neither should his parishioners. For his wife, who still believes in Satan and the fires of damnation, their difference of opinion severs both their earthly and eternal bonds. The radical act at the heart of Lucas Hnath’s “The Christians” is that the playwright takes her concern seriously. Hell is not a concept in this eighty-minute meditation on belief and communion. It is a very real threat to relationships built up over years within a faith, where separation and division become torment.

Pastor Paul (Tom Irwin) wants to relieve his evangelical congregation of their doubts and fears surrounding the afterlife. The community has just paid off its debts in building a new mega-church, and he wants their sanctuary to be a welcoming haven for outsiders. His associate pastor Joshua (Glenn Davis) is more inclined to use Bible verses about hell to shore up others’ faith. When Paul preaches a sermon giving up on hell, he expects his congregants to fall in line. Pastor Joshua refuses, and takes some of followers out of the church. Over the following days and weeks, Paul must contend with his wife’s worries (Shannon Cochran), the challenging questions posed by members of his flock (specifically Jenny, played with heart by Jacqueline Williams), and the demands of church elders, represented by the badgering Jay (Robert Brueler). As his family and friends fall away, Paul begins to question what led him to this new belief, and whether he has the right to be so certain, especially if it leaves him standing alone.

Tom Irwin and Glenn Davis/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

Hnath grew up in a Bible-first church much like Paul’s, and his intimate knowledge shines through in every conversation between pastor and parishioner. He structures the scenes via a continuous contemporary worship service, interspersing private dialogues with public displays of prayer, preaching, and personal testimony. Paul shuffles us between moments in his office and home with a bit of direct address, but he rarely puts down the microphone he uses during services, and there’s very little change in his manner when he talks to a struggling Jenny or when he disagrees with his wife; they speak into microphones, too. Hnath zeroes in on the fundamental fact of a pastor’s life: his public and his private life are rarely, if ever, separate. He must lead by example, and he must be ready at a moment’s notice to soothe fear or confront doubts. He cannot appear uncertain. Because the audience lives in the church service with our protagonist, we must work to see past Pastor Paul’s performance of his duties; at times we wind up just as frustrated and mistrusting as his followers.

I am a minister’s daughter, so I had a vested interest in Hnath’s examination of this conflicted community. I spent much of the play on the edge of my seat, worrying that he would simplify the philosophical and practical issues raised by Paul’s actions. I am happy to say that he draws characters with warmth and understanding, allowing them to debate the minister about how spiritual quandaries affect their everyday lives. When asking about the shift in doctrine, Jenny first lays out what the church means to her; it became her community after escaping an abusive relationship, and the church’s support has provided friends and opportunities for Jenny and her son. So why does Paul seek to divide them all, and drive some of her friends away by denying hell? It is a fair question, and Jenny only stymies the reverend further when she demands why Paul announced his change of heart once the church was past its financial woes, and not before. Hnath never lets Paul rest, and even allows a note of humor to enter the proceedings, when he is asked whether Hitler lives in heaven.

Irwin gives a delicate performance here. He is dutiful and passionate about his work and beliefs, but he keeps a formal remove from the other characters, acknowledging their distress without understanding how to end it. He becomes most humane and human when he cannot answer questions with scholarship or philosophy. Cochran is similarly polite as the smiling minister’s wife, but Hnath does not give her much space to ramp up to rejecting her husband’s point of view. She is hemmed in by this patriarchal world, so it may be purposeful that she does not speak in the worship services, but Hnath gives her the least specific motivation, when her pleading is supposed to hit hardest. It is not a good sign that I cannot remember the character’s first name, but to Cochran’s credit, I heard her desperation all the same.

Davis delivers a fiery, haunting performance as the seeking Joshua. After rebuking Paul and leaving the church, Joshua returns to discuss matters of life and death. In a relentless monologue, he describes his attempts to bring his mother to Jesus in her final moments. Davis owns this piece of theatre, and he imbues the associate pastor’s words with monumental grief and torture at the thought of being forever cut off from his mother. Whether one believes in the afterlife or not, Davis proves how real the outcomes are for the faithful.

Tom Irwin/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

Likewise, director K. Todd Freeman takes these men and women at their word. He never allows the actors to slip into caricatures of Christianity. He embraces the script’s debate about whether it is better to be secure in one’s beliefs and exist alone, or stay with a fractured community made up of doubters and those who disagree. He masterfully controls our perceptions of the worship service, and works with lighting designer Scott Zielinski to make viewers part of the congregation. The play begins during pre-show, with the house lights fully up, and the praise band singing boisterous and wonderful contemporary worship songs. On the night I attended, many in the audience seemed uncomfortable with the sincerity and emotions on display, especially because there was nowhere to hide when Irwin entered and began his sermon. But others near me bowed their heads when called to pray, and clapped along to the rip-roaring music during the pre-show. As Paul drifts further from family and friends, the house lights dimmed, and we became remote listeners, separate from him. It is a masterful and subtle choice, and one that could only be pulled off in the theatre.

The attention to detail does not end with the lights. I was shocked at how well the Steppenwolf stage served as a mega-church sanctuary. Set designer Walter Spangler wisely lines the floor with purple carpet, the color of royalty, a color often associated with Jesus. A giant cross gleams over the heads of the actors, and two projection screens spit out lyrics for the worship songs. Major kudos to projection designer Joseph A. Burke for nailing the hokey natural world scenes that are often displayed at such worship services. And it should be mentioned that costume designer Nan Cibula-Jenkins gets the Sunday suits and dresses exactly right. Not even the choir wears robes, right in line with the custom of contemporary worship.

“I want to stay with you forever.” Despite the depth and breadth and seriousness given to every part of this production, I keep coming back to that one line in the play. The weight of it. The sadness. The impossible desire. None of us wants to be alone. None of us wants to be separated from those we love. Belief can do that. But “The Christians” asks: does it have to? Is it necessary to divide ourselves? Or is there a way to bridge the gap, to stay with those who oppose you? If you recognize the struggles of others, and accept your detractors for who they are and what they believe, isn’t that all that really matters? Isn’t that faith?

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Memorable performances and design provide an astounding production about belief.

RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”