‘Christians’ Illuminates Fragility of Success, Marriage and Religion

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Thru June 11 at Mixed Blood Theater

By Colleen Steppa, Theater Reviewer (Photos courtesy of Walking Shadow Theater)

Lucas Hnath’s The Christians may not immediately appeal to the nonreligious, but its themes and execution are thoroughly fascinating and thought-provoking for any audience. Mixed Blood Theatre’s creative use of space, script, and song will fool veteran churchgoers into believing they are back in the pew for the first few minutes of the production. The show opens with a flawless recreation of a church choir, inviting the audience to clap and sing along if the spirit so moves them. The building transforms perfectly into a Protestant church, complete with cookies for sale and a Bible study schedule in the lobby. I found myself, a Minnesota native raised in a Baptist church, instinctively folding my hands and bowing my head when Pastor Paul announced “Let us pray,” and noticed fellow audience members did likewise. The setting was made all the more convincing by the presence of my parents – at one point when I noticed the audience was mouthing along to the choir I chuckled and my dad asked me what was funny, just the same way as if I had laughed in the middle of actual church.

Pastor Paul is the leader of a successful megachurch who throws in charming southernisms and occasionally mops his brow with a handkerchief. His wife sits daintily in the background, sporting a perfect blowout, pearls, and a pink skirt suit that Dolores Umbridge would drool over. Next to her sit Brother Joshua, the co-pastor, and Brother Jay, one of the church elders. Paul is a likeable everyman, an Atticus Finch type who uses colorful metaphors and personal anecdotes to create a powerful message in the initial sermon that is to set in motion a series of life-changing events.

The conflict at the heart of The Christians is over an interpretation of scripture – what do we believe and what does it mean to believe it? The relationships between characters interweave with their own relationships to their personal faiths, and when one thread breaks many strands come loose. It is a production that beautifully illuminates the fragility of success, of marriage, and religion.  These forces pull one another apart or back together in the lives of characters with a touching realism. Differing views on doctrine begin a schism that ripples through the church, opening discussion on the nature of God, Hell, the universe, salvation, and marriage.

Among the most moving scenes are those between Paul and his wife Elizabeth.  Their love story is powerful in its juxtaposition of the public face and the private one. Discussing the events of the day as they sit in bed, they are very different people than who we see on the stage of the pulpit. Elizabeth is deep and intelligent behind the lipsticked mask of the preacher’s wife and struggles with life in the shadow of Paul’s fame. Paul, in turn, is only as strong as the woman who stands behind him. Other relationships are no less poignant – Paul as the father-figure to his congregation and to Brother Joshua, and many figures who we do not meet but feel their presence through those onstage.

Tickets

The Christians by Walking Shadow Theatre, thru June 11
Mixed Blood Theater, 1501 South 4th Street

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