ALBANY — As a minister’s son, I found some personal resonances in “The Christians,” by Lucas Hnath (himself a preacher’s kid). But you don’t have to be religiously affiliated to appreciate the issues raised here, now in a well done production by a new troupe, Harbinger Theatre.
Hnath places the audience in the congregation of a mega-church, led by Pastor Paul (Dennis Skiba), a man who has shepherded the church from a handful to more than 1,500 parishioners—and still growing. At today’s service Pastor Paul announces that the debt for this state-of-the-art building has been paid off.
But he also has another announcement, a decision he has come to based on a poignant true story he tells us: this church will no longer believe in Hell.
And so begins a series of encounters Pastor Paul has with his associate minister (David Quinones); an elder (Ken Klapp); a congregant, Sister Jenny (Monet India Thompson); and his wife (Amy Hausknecht), conversations that turn into profound and uncomfortable dialectics about the promise of heaven exclusively for good people and true believers in Jesus Christ.
At one point Paul says, “I believe I am doing what I am doing because God told me,” to which Sister Jenny, who’s on the other side, says, “Me, too!”— a funny and scarily familiar moment. (Ask the Supreme Court as it weighs arguments for and against abortion. Let’s think about our current state of politics or ideas of public education.)
How does a congregation stay together? How does a civil and pluralistic society stay together? How do religious individuals reconcile competing messages when the stakes — heaven and hell — are so high?
And what is the role of any leader — to go along with the wishes of the led or to prompt the followers to think in fresh terms?
If the play gets off to a slow start, it picks up interest as it goes. But I think we need the beginning–with the choir, confidently singing hymns of belief (“Hold to God’s Unchanging Hand,” for example), as it does on any other Sunday — in order to appreciate the tremendous disruption Pastor Paul’s declaration causes.
Founder and director Patrick White knows whom to call on for tech support to bring off a successful production. They’re here. I especially liked the blue drapes evoking a sanctuary; the pre-show organ music; and the lighting, sound, and projections (kudos to Nick Nealon).
Music director Ron Weber has trained the chorus to sing out the gospel numbers with enthusiasm and style. A nod to soloists Victoria Vine and Michael Murphy.
Klapp captures the nervous energy of a man delivering a thorny message from the board of trustees to Pastor Paul, whom he likes.
Thompson movingly pours out passion and frustration as she shifts from gratitude for the church’s support to discomfort at having to think about things she thought she knew.
In a touching performance, Hausknecht captures the challenges of standing by your man and standing up for yourself. The interactions between Skiba and Hausknecht are heartbreaking.
As Paul’s spiritual and intellectual foil, Quinones conveys the difficulty of disagreeing with this father figure. Initially the associate is brash and confident; subsequently, he is broken and bewildered. A fine performance.
And Skiba is marvelous throughout, not a showman preacher, but a quiet man, someone who must think through charges of hypocrisy because he wants to know his own soul as much as he wants his parishioners to know theirs. His sparring with the others is deftly done, with thoughtful pauses and quick retorts. Here’s where White’s keen ear for pacing is helpful.
This script raises existential questions for us as mortals and questions as members of our various social tribes. Answers? No. But Hnath gets us thinking, and maybe talking, and that’s one reason we go to the theater.
WHERE: Harbinger Theatre at Albany Barn, 56 Second St. Albany
WHEN: Through Dec. 11
HOW MUCH: $15
MORE INFO: 351.201.5698