(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Cate Blouke.)
Don’t let Hyde Park Theatre’s typical programming fool you into thinking you’re in for another dark comedy with the regional premier of Lucas Hnath’s “The Christians,” playing through March 28.
Rather than satire, the show is a thoughtful and moving look at the challenges of faith, belief, and belonging.
Set in a thriving megachurch, “The Christians” opens with gospel music and a sermon. With Mark Pickell’s meticulously realistic set design and a live choir, Pastor Paul’s (Ken Webster) initial call to prayer triggers an eerie sort of Pavlovian response, eliciting a few murmured “Amens” from the audience. Even for those of us without religious inclinations, it’s disorienting to forget we’re in a theatre as the church service begins.
The plot hinges on a revelation that Pastor Paul makes during this opening sermon, and I won’t spoil it by revealing it here (though I will say it has nothing to do with homosexuality). Paul’s sermon has to do with core beliefs, and it’s dramatic enough to start a schism in the congregation – lead by Associate Pastor Joshua (Joey Hood) – that continues to fracture over the course of the play.
Hnath’s script is nuanced and compassionate, and it’s remarkable how well he balances both sides of the issue at hand. When Hood returns to the stage to make his case a second time, his performance is surprisingly moving to those of us holding antithetical beliefs. This speaks both to Hood’s talent as a performer and the care taken by the playwright.Unfortunately, the same energy and nuance don’t find their way into Webster’s opening sermon. Instead, he rather lulls us into the ennui of a lengthy lecture, and the revelation isn’t as shocking as it’s probably supposed to be.
Directing himself, Webster plays his character the way he plays most of his characters: still, straightforward, and stoic. Consequently, the play falters somewhat since the burden of plot falls on our belief in a charismatic and emotionally conflicted leader.
Nevertheless, it’s a good show. It asks questions that don’t have easy answers and shows people struggling to figure out how to live and love through difficult circumstances. It will make you think, and might make you cry, and will certainly leave a lasting impression.
“The Christians” continues through March 28. www.hydeparktheatre.org