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The Christians at Baltimore Center Stage by Bret McCabe

Pastor Paul (Howard W. Overshown) shocks his flock barely ten minutes into Baltimore Center Stage’s production of The Christians. Standing at the pulpit of his thousand-seat evangelical megachurch, which the congregation only recently paid off, Paul confesses that he’s recently been so moved by a story of a young boy that he turned to G-d seeking counsel. He shared a  missionary’s story, of witnessing a young boy run into a burning building to save his sister from the flames, only to die from the traumas he sustained. And because that boy had yet to accept Jesus Christ as his personal savior, he would not be admitted to the kingdom of heaven.

Pastor Paul admitted that he had trouble reckoning this boy’s eternal damnation, and turned to his Bible to find scripture verses that support his evolution of faith that he wants to share. He now firmly believes that He will welcome everyone—and pastor Paul means everyone—into His everlasting love, because hell doesn’t exist. At least, not in the afterlife. If humanity wants to know what hell looks like, they can merely take a look around.

Forty years into the Evangelical right being a national voting force in American politics, Hnath’s play is a rare breed: a contemporary Christian narrative that treats its believers not as human megaphones through which to spread unyielding dogma, but as thoughtful people searching for something in which to believe.

That’s an explosive line in the play and in Center Stage’s Pearlstone mainstage theater, which scenic designer Mike Carnahan, lighting designer Jen Schriever, and costumer designer Michael Alan Stein convincingly transform into a contemporary megachurch, down to the soothingly bright colors, blandly inoffensive nature imagery projected onto the screens flanking the pulpit for those latecomers in the back, and the grateful spirit of the pre-show text that’s projected onto those screens as you enter the theater.

“We know you could have gone anywhere tonight,” one such benediction reads, “but we are so grateful the Lord has led you here.”

If you’ve never been to a contemporary megachurch, the professionally devout tone of a Sunday celebration can feel corporate branding insincere, but it’s to both director Hana Sharif and Christians playwright Lucas Hnath’s credit that they understand that, for churchgoers, that attitude springs from a profound sincerity.

It can feel alien to the uninitiated—as somebody whose religious world was most profoundly shaped by an Orthodox Mexican-American congregation in Dallas where priests rocked medieval beards and wore brocade vestments, masses were chanted in Church Slavonic, and you routinely kissed icons, my first exposure to Baptist megachurches felt like a show in Vegas—but these celebrations conform to their own visual vocabularies and narrative structures, and The Christians incorporates them into its opening narrative arc.

The members of the band enter the stage first, followed by the burgundy-and-navy robed members of the choir and the band leader, who eventually gets them all to launch into the celebratory opening song. Pastor Paul, his wife Elizabeth (the superb Nikkole Salter), associate pastor Joshua (Adam Gerber), and elder Jay (Lawrence Clayton) enter, greet each other with hugs and handshakes as if they haven’t seen each other in days, take their seats, and eventually pastor Paul approaches the microphone to ask everybody rise with him and pray.

Over the next few minutes, you may hear “um-hmms” and “amens” from audience members, so faithfully does The Christians adhere to church proceedings. But come pastor Paul’s revelation, director Sharif and especially Overshown, whose subtle changes in body language and vocal inflection conveys just how much pastor Paul understands what he’s challenging his own church to believe, push the play into impressively difficult terrains.

Kudos to Hnath’s and this entire production to understand both that church is theater, and that a pastor’s sermon touches people where they live—in their intimate, ordinary, day-to-day lives.

Forty years into the Evangelical right being a national voting force in American politics, Hnath’s play is a rare breed: a contemporary Christian narrative that treats its believers not as human megaphones through which to spread unyielding dogma, but as thoughtful people searching for something in which to believe. The play unfolds as a series of challenges to Pastor Paul’s new direction, first from associate pastor Joshua, who leaves and takes some parishioners with him; then elder Jay, and eventually even Elizabeth, charting how one man’s religion can impact his peers, his job, and even his marriage.

The most moving of challenges comes from choir member Jenny (Jessiee Datino), a young mother who turned to the church during a very difficult time in her life and is graciously thankful for how it, and pastor Paul, helped her during her time of need. But she has questions about the church’s new direction. Lots of them. And pastor Paul’s answers, while honest and moving, aren’t entirely swaying.

Believing that hell doesn’t exist and that following the Bible to the letter isn’t the only path to everlasting life is a glorious message of unconditional love; however, it might not be as satisfying as the more commonly held belief that how you live in this life secures your spot in the next life. The Christians convincingly argues both sides, and eventually arrives at the far more impressive conclusion that there’s something disturbingly human in the uncertainty that maybe religion provides guidance for enduring this mortal coil. And maybe it doesn’t.

Top Image: The Christians at Baltimore Center Stage. Pictured: (L to R) Lawrence Clayton, Adam Gerber, Howard W. Overshown, Nikkole Salter. Photo by Richard Anderson

All photos by Richard Anderson courtesy of Baltimore Center Stage

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