By Steve Wong
If you want solid answers to your questions
about religion, don’t see “The Christians” now playing at Centre Stage in Greenville. You won’t get any easy answers to questions that have plagued the faithful for centuries, but you will be given a lot to think about in the days to follow.
As one of Centre Stage’s “Fringe” productions, “The Christians” is perfect for the person who ponders why we believe and do certain things in our quest for spiritual fulfillment. As a Christian (or even a non-Christian), you might ask: “Do I believe in the devil,
as a fallen angel with split hooves, a pointy tail, horns, and carrying a pitchfork?” “Do I believe all non-Christians will burn in Hell when they die, no matter what good they did in life?” “Do I believe in the Bible — literally?”
These are just some of the sticking points that Pastor Paul and members of his mega-church wrestle with in this thought-provoking play by playwright Lucas Hnath, best known for his 2016 Obie Award-winning “Red Speedo.” Last year, his latest work “A Doll’s House, Part 2” premiered on
“The Christians” first opened at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, KY in 2014, and premiered Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in August 2015 for a short three-month run. It was nominated for several awards, but only received one: the
Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play in 2016. Critics have been kind to this rather simple five-person play, most-often and correctly saying it is “thought provoking.” Be you a Christian or heathen, “The Christians” is a play you
should see, if for no other reason than to have challenging conversations over coffee.
At Centre Stage, theatre-goers are welcomed by a set meant to simulate a megachurch with dueling big-screen TVs, nondescript organ music, a backdrop of black scaffolding cluttered with black equipment, and very long silver tinsel. Cutout vertical silver panels
are incorporated into the backstage, possibly resembling organ pipes. The stage is a chancel, minus an altar. There is a single lectern with a corded microphone, a cross on the front, and a spray of colorful fake flowers. Four straight-back and burgundy-upholstered
chairs flank the raised lectern, but there’s always at least one empty seat. Notably, there are corded microphones to the left and the right, which in this day and age of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth might seem odd, but I believe is extremely important. Above it all
is a large wooden cross.
The plays opens with some upbeat Christian music, stock video footage, and the four main characters enter in nice conservative church clothes, and with big smiles and hardy handshakes to anyone within grabbing distance.
Pastor Paul is the middle-age head pastor to a flock of thousands. He tries to be on an even keel: not too enthusiastic,
patient, seemingly middle of the road until he reveals that while sitting on the toilet one night, he had an extended conversation with God. As a result, he know longer believes in Hell. This is church-splitting news.
This role was taken on Kevin Treu, who
has performed at Centre Stage several times in shows such as “Noises Off” and “In the Middle of Nowhere.” Treu has the tricky task of portraying a somewhat lackluster but sincere church leader who has had a major change of thinking on basic doctrine and is
now faced with a religious divide that threatens everything he holds dear, including his marriage. He tries to be true to all, including himself. Treu maintains that delicate balance throughout the show, often coming across as a leader without answers to questions that no one saw on the horizon.
Associate Pastor Joshua is Pastor Paul’s protege, a young man saved from a life of sin and went on to become the No.
2 church leader, especially popular with the young people. He’s the kind of guy who will raise his hand and closed eyes to heaven at the emotional pitch of a prayer. This role is taken on by Robert Fuson, a young thespian making his mark in Upstate theatre
as a director, stage manager, and actor. His most recent performances include “Titus Andronicus,” “Sister Act,” “A Few Good Men,” and “Julius Caesar.” Joshua is a character set on the straight and narrow with blinders. He believes in the Bible — period. And
when faced with the fact that his mentor is taking a different path, he just can’t handle it. Convincingly, Fuson brings out non-wavering faith, coupled with a passion for the cross, and even a strong streak of faithfulness to a man he longer follows. He is
also blessed with the best line in the play: “I’ll pray,” which is the only line in the play said without a microphone.
Pastor Paul’s wife is Elizabeth, another among the faithful who is being put to the test. She is a woman torn asunder
by her husband’s revelations. She is played by Lisa Sain Odom, who was a featured soloist in Centre Stage’s “And the World Goes Round.” She is a voice professor at Clemson with many film and opera roles to her credit. Odom is very womanly as the pastor’s wife:
supportive, understanding, and never one to steal the spotlight from the man in her life. Her character is critical to the overall understanding of the play’s message about divided allegiances, especially as she contemplates leaving her husband.
Simon Crowe plays Joe Ryan, one of the church’s elders, who admittedly is a layman when it comes to faith. Yet, he
certainly can flash a smile and shake a hand with the most charismatic. Ryan is the voice of reason, be it a voice of not rocking the boat. Crowe, who has been seen in “Is He Dead?” “A Party to Murder,” “The Odd Couple,” and “A Flea in Her Ear,” gives Ryan
that sense of sensibility, of leaving well enough alone, and not understanding why the Pastor would choose to question the unquestionable. He’s the kind of guy you want on the church’s Board of Elders because he’ll follow the pack.
Crowe plays not second but
third fiddle among the men of influence, as well he should. Good acting is not about standing out but being true to one character.
The standout character of “The Christians” was Jenny, a young woman terribly confused by all the fuss. Played by Antoinette
Hall, she is a single and poor mother, making ends meet with the help of the church that she loves. In turn, she gives back to the church more than her fair share of tithing. All she really asks for in return is solid answers to questions of faith. Hall has
made the rounds in theater’s in the Upstate in various capacities, both behind the scenes and on stage, including Centre Stage’s “Intimate Apparel.”
To the play the role of a distressed Christian who stands before the multitude and to ask for answers that don’t really exist, requires a great deal of personal depth on behalf of Hall. Her ability to swing her emotions and stand helpless in her distress is a statement to her budding talent.
But about those corded microphones: Why in the world would the playwright require the characters to always carry a
microphone? Could it be that communication is a central topic of concern in a play about telling others what you believe? Could it be these characters are all tied to a central master control system and yet they often become entangled with their individual
messages? Must they be burdened with carrying the mechanics of the scripture while they applifly their beliefs? They don’t know, and I don’t know. As when Associate Pastor Joshua said when he dropped his mic and spoke in his true voice, it is something to
Directed by Kent Brown, “The Christians” continue through Feb. 7 at Centre Stage in downtown Greenville.