Theatre Review | 'The Christians' 

click to enlarge Out of Pocket presents "The Christians" by Lucas Hnath through January 20.

ANNETTE DRAGON.

Out of Pocket presents "The Christians" by Lucas Hnath through January 20.

“What can wash away my sin?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus
What can make me whole again?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus…”


As strains of this familiar hymn wafted through the lobby of MuCCC on Friday night, I found myself subconsciously humming along. I steeped a peppermint tea bag in a cup of hot water at the honor-system concessions stand, and quickly took my seat in a nearby pew.

The song, the tea, the pew — it felt nearly identical to my nearly 30 years spent in evangelical churches. Except this time, I didn’t have to wonder if I was watching a performance. Through January 20, Out of Pocket presents “The Christians” by Lucas Hnath, a play within a Sunday service about the consequences a megachurch pastor faces when he questions his fire-and-brimstone doctrine.

“The Christians” is a fairly new play. It first played in 2014 at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Kentucky. In 2015, it premiered Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons, and in 2016, it won both an Obie Award and the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play. Unsurprisingly, it was written by a former church kid, Lucas Hnath, who once aspired to be a minister like his mother but is now a playwright and professor at New York University.

A show that dives into the nuances of church culture and theological arguments couldn’t as effectively be written by someone who doesn’t know it, and it’s clear director Rachel Solomon and the 11-person cast have done some research as well. The big question: is hell real? It’s truth versus feelings, and the soul of the church is on the line (maybe).

The set design is simple: it’s the stage of a church, complete with piano, choir, pulpit, and one of those often over-designed PowerPoint slideshows that displays worship lyrics and Bible verses. A few faux stained glass windows behind the choir pit emphasize a classic church aesthetic. And for the entirety of the 1 hour-and-40 minute show (which runs without an intermission), it feels entirely possible that this is an actual church service, and the ensuing drama is being played out in real time.

That feeling speaks to the masterful performance of Jeffrey D. Suida as ‘Pastor.’ Siuda has the lion’s share of lines and stage time during the show — his character is responsible for the theological mindset that causes a church split and also doubles as a narrator throughout the show. Suida seamlessly delivers “sermon cadence,” impressively weaving the earnest pleading and performative nature of a pastor with a bit of dishonesty (or, shall we say, omission).

The music director (Kevin Kaminsky), choir (Kathryn Borden, Jamie DiGiacco, John P. Gaehring, Kasi L. Krenzer Marshall, Tiffany Thompson, and Meagan Zdep) and the Pastor’s ‘Wife' (Elizabeth Saunders) are onstage nearly the entire runtime. In the case of Saunders, it's proof that a powerful performance can be delivered with simple body language and facial expressions as she merely reacts for the first three-quarters of the play. In supporting roles are Tom Bigongiara as “Associate,’ John R. Jaeger as ‘Elder,’ and Meagan Zdep as ‘Congregant.’ Each of the three has a commanding stage presence and delivers an emotive performance.

“The Christians” is a riveting, relevant play performed to near-perfection by Out of Pocket, whether you’ve been to an evangelical church or not. For the uninitiated, it presents a subculture that may be both intriguing and confusing with its lingo and obvious business model. For those who know the lyrics to “Days of Elijah,” it’s perhaps a reminder of what they embrace — or, have left behind.

"The Christians" resumes January 18 through 20 at MuCCC, 142 Atlantic Avenue. More info and tickets here.

Leah Stacy is CITY's editor. Feedback about this article can be directed to [email protected].
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