Writer: Lucas Hnath
Director: Christopher Haydon
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
Anybody brought up in a Christian tradition of Sunday School and regular church visits will be familiar with the parables of the Gospels. For some young people it is their first real encounter with the morality tale, self-contained stories with a clear-cut moral that should be applied to real life. And then we grow up, and we begin to appreciate that the larger Bible is far more complex, with passages that can, and have been, interpreted in small but vitally different ways.
One such reinterpretation lies at the heart of Lucas Hnath’s The Christians, as William Gaminara’s American pastor Paul delivers a sermon which sets out a vision of salvation and redemption that sets him against a junior pastor, and which threatens to tear their church apart.
The staging appropriates the trappings of the modern American church, with a gospel choir providing four full-length hymns, and with all conversations delivered into standing microphones, just as the pastors would deliver a sermon or through which congregation members would testify. The effect can be jarring, most notably in a heartfelt discussion between Paul and his wife (Jaye Griffiths), with the characters’ pillow talk declaimed and laid open in a very public, confessional style.
But the deliberately over-amplified sound design pays off as congregant Jenny, played with endearing vulnerability by Lucy Ellinson, asks increasingly difficult questions about the church’s new direction – questions to which the pastor is unable to provide straightforward answers, much less acknowledge the schism his sermon has caused. A single sentence, a question resigned to getting no answer, is all the more deafening by being the only piece of dialogue delivered off-mic.
Presenting the fracturing church through the prism of a sequence of duologues between Paul and one other character at a time works primarily through Gaminara’s portrayal of a likeable but flawed leader whose true motives are unclear, as questionable as they are questioned. It is a performance upon which it becomes possible to hang a theological debate about the nature of Hell and the entry requirements for Heaven that resonates even for those who have never really thought all that deeply about such matters. And remarkably, what could be an earnest Socratic dialogue about faith becomes a compelling tale of people to whom their church is their family, and who feel powerless as it begins to break up.
Of course, this is an allegory about the state of the Christian church as a whole as much as it is about one fictional congregation. Unlike those Sunday School parables of youth, though, there is no clear-cut sense of right and wrong. And while the final moments of Hnath’s script work better on the page than on stage, the overall production achieves its goal – of asking difficult questions about faith, knowing that any answers could, will, and maybe must, divide opinion.
Fringe theatre often claims to want to make people think. The Gate’s current production is one of the few that will genuinely leave the mind racing for hours afterwards, and possibly much, much longer.