By Michael “Buzz” Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant
Pastor Paul (David Whalen) is proud to announce that the congregation’s brand new megachurch is paid off in full. He’s also proud to announce that he no longer believes in the devil or the Christian concept of Hell in Lucas Hnath’s play, “The Christians.”
What happens when a popular pastor decides to change the rules? All hell breaks loose (figuratively speaking, of course).
In mid-sermon, Associate Pastor Joshua (Joshua Elijah Reese) challenges Pastor Paul’s newfound beliefs. Joshua believes in the fire, brimstone and all the horror that goes with it. A division in the congregation begins to open a crack. Parishioners fall away. At first, it’s a manageable amount. Jay, a Church Elder (Robert Haley), tells him the board backs him. Then, Jenny (Gayle Pazerski), a congregant, questions him. He invites her up to the pulpit and they have a discussion that tears open the rift between the two sides of the congregation. The faithful begin to fall further away. Pastor Paul’s megachurch bleeds out like the blood of Christ on the cross, slowly, painfully, inevitably.
Things get extremely dire when Elizabeth (Mindy Woodhead), the pastor’s wife, decides she disagrees with her husband. She can’t reconcile his beliefs with her own and it begins to tear away at their marriage.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “You are entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts.”
But in religion, are there facts? What separates truth from fiction when everyone is relying on faith? It’s the core issue of Hnath’s play, and it’s sure to start a conversation among audience members. There were several interesting discussions on opening night.
Director Andrew Paul picked a perfect cast for “The Christians.”
Whalen is charismatic as the preacher. He commands the stage with a powerful presence. His character is multifaceted. He is bold, brash and bellicose, while preaching love and tolerance. Whalen makes the dichotomy work. It’s fascinating to watch the pastor who is preaching about tolerance, but doesn’t tolerate opposing viewpoints. Pastor Paul expects his congregation to follow no matter where he leads them, and he’s devastated when they don’t.
Reese delivers a spectacular performance as the leader of the dissent. His voice is strong and equally commanding. It’s easy to see the congregants unite around him.
Pazerski does a terrific job as a woman in conflict with her own beliefs. Jenny is tormented when her church fails her, and Pazerski portrays that pain realistically and thoughtfully.
Whalen’s scenes with Woodhead pack the most punch. It’s painful to watch them wrestle with their deeply held spiritual beliefs and the passion and joy of their marriage. They go through their own personal hell.
The megachurch has a mighty choir consisting of Monteze Freeland, Natalie Hatcher and Missy Moreno. Their three superb voices blended together beautifully. Each of them is given a moment in the spotlight, and each of them gloriously raised their voices to God.
Set designer Johnmichael Bohach puts the mega in megachurch. The room feels like the Crystal Cathedral with an enormous post-modern cross towering above the pulpit, suspended in mid-air on wires. It looks like it’s floating above Pastor Paul’s head, like the sword of Damocles.
Caution: The play, while called “The Christians,” may be upsetting to people who are firmly rooted in their faith. The play wrestles with abstract ideas, but, underneath, it’s really about our interactions with one another, and how we treat those who have alternative ideas on the afterlife.
It’s a hell of a good play.
“The Christians” runs till July 2 at the New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, Pittsburgh, PA 15212. For more information, click here.