september 2017 | Volume 159
Pictured: Tré Cotten. Photo by Jalen Saip.
As a lapsed Jew and confirmed atheist, I may not be the ideal person to review Lucas Hnath’s The Christians, now playing at Pacific Theatre in the basement of Holy Trinity Anglican Church, directed by Sarah Rodgers. But here goes.
In the play Pastor Paul (Ron Reed), the spiritual leader of a large evangelical American church, preaches a sermon in which, without warning, he challenges, even reverses, some of his own and his church’s previous foundational doctrines—in particular, the existence of damnation and hell. He’s had his conversion not on the road to Damascus but on the road from New Orleans, where he’s heard a story that has rocked his faith.
All the other characters respond with varying degrees of shock and skepticism. Associate Pastor Joshua (Tre Cotton) is the most doctrinaire. He reluctantly rejects Paul’s radical shift and leaves the church. Elder Jay (Allan Morgan), speaking to Paul on behalf of the church’s Board, has practical concerns about the loss of Joshua and the parishioners who have followed him.
Congregant Jenny (Mariam Barry), a poor single mother, raises some troubling doctrinal issues. If there is no hell, then where, say, is Hitler? “If all are saved through Christ,” Paul replies, “Hitler’s in heaven.” Maybe even more troubling for Jenny is the fact that, “conveniently,” Paul has saved the revelation of his doctrinal shift until after the church has paid off its significant debts—largely as a result of tithes paid by the congregants, including Jenny who, though on food stamps, gives 20% of her meagre earnings each week to the church.
Even Paul’s wife, Elizabeth (Erin Ormond), opposes his decision, perhaps most eloquently and judiciously. She wonders why Paul insisted that Joshua, if he didn’t embrace the new doctrine, had to leave the church: “You’re saying that absolute tolerance requires intolerance of the intolerant?” She wonders if she herself should leave not just the church but Paul. And when Paul says he’s convinced that he hears the voice of God telling him he’s right, Elizabeth replies, “Sometimes it’s hard to know which voice is God’s and which your wishful self.”
So there’s the dilemma, the debate. Who’s right? The debate might be fascinating. You’d think a secular-ish liberal-ish Vancouver audience would easily come down on the side of Paul and his new liberal doctrine. Personally, I surprised myself by feeling sympathy for everyone but him. As written, and played by Reed (excellent as always), Paul is an interpretive bully, forcing his (ultimately unconvincing) biblical readings on Joshua. Later, he weakly fails to adequately defend or explain himself to Jenny or Elizabeth.
I have a big problem with Paul’s mostly unexplained radical shift. This is a very short play, padded out to 90 minutes by the entertaining gospel songs threaded through the play by a 14-member chorus with organ accompaniment. We get almost no backstory other than the single incident that seems to have reversed a lifetime of belief in Paul, and his issues with Joshua and with the church’s finances are never sufficiently developed.
Despite excellent acting throughout the cast, especially by Ormond, none of the other characters gets any development either. Everyone speaks through a hand-held microphone, enhancing the impression of intimacy. But the characters remain only sketches. This is a play of ideas—or rather idea—and the characters and plot exist merely to frame it.
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