What happens when you combine a wonderful script with a wonderful cast? You get Theater Magic. And that is what you have currently at the Hyde Park Theatre with its production of The Christians, by Lucas Hnath.
Commissioned by and premiered in the 2014 Humana Festival of New American Plays, The Christians is headed to the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in December and other nationally-known venues. But HPT has taken the opportunity to be the first company since the play’s premiere to bring to the stage this mesmerizing and thought-provoking story of a minister who announces a fundamental change in his religious beliefs, a change that causes his congregants to leave the church and illustrates, to quote the HPT literature, “how our beliefs – any kind of belief – can keep us apart.”
The play opens with a sermon by church leader Pastor Paul, in which he declares, among other things, that we all will go to heaven, no matter what. This declaration comes as a surprise to the congregants, the church elders, the associate pastor, and even Pastor Paul’s wife. The sermon – from an actor’s perspective, a nearly 30-minute monologue – is delivered by Ken Webster. His delivery is spellbinding as he tells his congregation and us how he now believes all of us – no matter what we have done — will go to heaven, a place so wonderful that he cannot imagine it.
Webster does this feat in a triangular space that is probably no more than 20 feet in its longest dimension. He does it holding a microphone and manipulating the microphone’s cord in a manner reminiscent of actual pastors of large megachurches. The intimacy of the Hyde Park Theatre does not require amplified sound, but sound designer Robert S. Fisher has tweaked the volume level to just a point where you are aware that the microphone is not just an inert prop. And all the actors use one of two microphones throughout the performance, no matter what the situation (e.g., the pastor and the elder are having a conversation in the pastor’s office; the pastor and his wife are in bed). It’s an artifice that really doesn’t make sense; but, somehow, it works.
After Pastor Paul finishes his sermon, the challenges come, first from Associate Pastor Joshua, played very effectively by Joey Hood. Joshua is not convinced and leaves the church. Then, Pastor Paul must face Elder Jay (veteran Tom Green) and choir member Jenny (HPT company member Jess Hughes), both of whom ask Pastor Paul questions that he cannot answer to their satisfaction and leave. Finally, it is Pastor Paul’s wife, Elizabeth (seven-time B. Iden Payne award winner Katherine Catmull), who reveals she does not agree with him and plans to leave not only the church, but their marriage as well.
These four supporting actors, in addition to their spoken parts, have the challenge of being on stage through all of the sermon and most of the other dialogues. But Ken Webster, as the director of this production, has gotten them to react appropriately or to remain unobtrusively passive in moments when, in other plays, they actually would be off-stage. This is no mean feat and is a credit to the director and to the actors.
Mention must also be made of the choir under the director of lead singer Kelley Glover. She and her singers provide an additional bit of authenticity to the feel of a fundamentalist megachurch. Remarkable also is the set provided by Mark Pickell. He has created a lush space to represent the altar and pulpit, complete with choir space and even a large-screen monitor. The set is stunning, particularly in the confinement of the HPT.
The Christians is in one-act and runs about 90 minutes with no intermission. The production continues Thursday through Saturday evenings at 8:00 p.m. through March 28 at the Hyde Park Theatre, 511 W. 43rd Street. The HPT website is http://www.hydeparktheatre.org.