October 7, 2015

Crises of Faith Tests the Secular and the Spiritual in "The Christians" and "Believers"

Relations between the worlds of theater and religion have been bad ever since the Puritans shut down London's theaters in 1642. And although the theaters reopened 18 years later with the restoration of Charles II, the wariness has remained so strong that religion has usually been the object of scorn (Inherit the Wind) or satire (The Book of Mormon) in the few shows that dealt with it at all.

But over the last year, I've seen at least half a dozen shows (including Our Lady of Kibeho, Grand Concourse, The Events and even Hand to God) that have taken religion—and its believers—seriously. And now we have two new shows about people grappling with their faith: The Christians, which recently extended its run at Playwrights Horizons through Oct. 25, and The WorkShop Theater Company production of Believers, which runs at the Main Stage Theater until Oct. 17.

The Christians actually takes place in the sanctuary of a modern megachurch with the audience playing the role of the congregation. Set designer Dane Laffrey has created a handsome chancel, complete with a loft for the robed choir that starts things off with a couple of rousing hymns as the pulpit party—which includes Paul, the head pastor; his wife Elizabeth and the associate pastor Joshua—take the stage.

It's an important service because their church is celebrating the 20th anniversary of its founding and the completion of the mortgage payments on its impressive building. But Pastor Paul also has another significant announcement to make: after some reflection, he has come to the conclusion that hell doesn't exist. The rejection of that fundamental belief proceeds to tear the church apart.

The play was written by Lucas Hnath, the son of a seminary-educated mother who considered becoming a minister himself (click here to read more about him). So it's no surprise that Pastor Paul's revelation is reminiscent of the one made by Rob Bell, a charismatic evangelical minister who left his Michigan megachurch after making similar statements a few years ago (click here to read more about him).

Hnath treats all sides of the theological debate with equal respect and the arguments are compelling (would an all-forgiving God really allow people to suffer eternal damnation? can there truly be no difference between minor transgressions and the out-and-out evil of a Hitler or a Pol Pot?) but they're delivered as mini-sermons, spoken through hand-held mics.

And even though the performances, under the quiet direction of Les Waters, are impeccable, particularly Andrew Garman radiating the polished sincerity of a televangelist as Pastor Paul and Larry Powell as the impassioned Joshua who fervently believes that the Bible is the literal word of God, I couldn't help feeling as though I were sitting in a theology class instead of a theater.

The most exciting part of the evening at the performance I attended occurred when the show had to be stopped halfway through because a woman two rows ahead of me had what seemed to be an epileptic attack that eerily caused her to mimic the gestures of someone in the throes of religious ecstasy.

Believers, written by Ken Jaworowski, who has a day job as an editor for The New York Times, is a more modest production but it, too, grapples earnestly with the meaning of faith. 

Its central characters are Donna and Chris, who meet at a Christian college in the 1990s. She's there because she's devout; he because the school offered the most generous scholarship for him to pursue his dream of becoming a painter.

In Merrily We Roll Along fashion, their story flips back and forth between past and present day scenes, as the couple falls in love, marries, wrestles with career choices and endures the anguish of raising a severely handicapped (but never seen) child.

There is, however, nothing prim or prudish about the way the play deals with faith. Donna swears like a sailor and is sexually frisky but still seeks comfort in prayer. Different pairs of actors portray the young and middle-aged Donna and Chris, with Allison Linker particularly winning as the younger woman. 

Meanwhile, both Jaworowski and his director Alex Dmitriev display a respect for the fact that the line between people of faith and those who question it can be thinner than either side thinks. 

But there's a Job-like relentlessness to the pile up bad-news events in the latter part of the couple's life that undermines the dramatic tension and eventually wore me down.

Still, it's a good thing that the walls between church and stage are coming down. Now, the people who create them just need to find a way to make those shows, well, more theatrical.

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