By Lynn Venhaus
Playwright Lucas Hnath doesn’t ever flinch, and neither does his lead character, Pastor Paul in “The Christians,” an examination of faith and influence in a 21st century megachurch.
In an innovative move, the West End Players Guild is presenting this thought-provoking drama in the Union Avenue Christian Church, not their usual stage in the basement.
It’s just one of director Ellie Schwetye’s smart moves, and the setting adds an authenticity for this examination of faith and doctrine.
It’s not a typical megachurch plot, where there is often reason to deride piety. The characters are sincere, which makes it more powerful.
Pastor Paul has discarded his church’s traditional fundamentalist Christianity in favor of a more inclusive and universal Christianity. When he announces to his congregation that he has come to doubt a core belief – well, this does not go over well.
He thinks other religions have valid points. Oh, the horror. This rocks everyone to their core. Chaos will ensue.
Ten years ago, his church was a modest storefront, but now it houses thousands, with all sorts of amenities. It’s paid for, and all seems to be going well. How does one man unite a church – and then, suddenly, divide it? Can internal politics tear down things built up with love?
As Pastor Paul, Joel Moses digs deep, showing us his pain over his flock’s revulsion, and how those closest to him turn on him. He’s aghast, for while he expected this sermon to be controversial, the reaction stuns him. Their foundation – and relationships – will crumble before our very eyes.
As this unsettling drama unfolds, the cast is pitch-perfect, making sure each character is not black-or-white, but many shades of grey. Each has a crisis of faith, and this creates thought-provoking content. And interesting confrontations as they all seem at different crossroads.
Joseph Garner is impressive as the associate pastor Joshua, who must stay true to his values. Rachel Hanks is strong as Pastor Paul’s faithful wife Elizabeth — but begins to doubt so much about their relationship and work. And then loyal parishioner Jenny, played by a fiery Chrissie Watkins, must speak her truth. Michael Byrd has a small role as Elder Jay.
Hnath, a favorite of West End Players Guild, first produced “The Christians” at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Ky., in 2014. It premiered off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in 2015, and then had its Chicago premiere at Steppenwholf Theatre Company in 2016. He is the son of a minister.
Among its accolades – “The Christians” was nominated for two 2016 Drama Desk Awards, for Outstanding Play and Outstanding Actor in a Play, and then nominated for the 2016 Lortel Award for Outstanding Play and Outstanding Lead Actor in a Play. It won the 2016 Outer Critics Circle Award as Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play
This production is a St. Louis premiere, and is one of the strongest dramas of the year.
West End Players Guild presents Lucas Hnath’s The Christians Dec. 2-11 at Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union in the Central West End. For more information: westendplayers.org.
Photos by John Lamb