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The Christians

Emily Donohue, Linda Powell and Andrew Garman†††††††††††† photos by Joan Marcus

††††††††††††††††††††††††††† by Michall Jeffers

What a joy it is to experience a play that forces us to think about what we really believe. I challenge any intelligent theater-goes to see The Christians, and then not want to discuss it at length. Is there a heaven and a hell? Is there room for the faithful to question? How much of the Bible is the Word of God, and how much is mistranslation?

My first instinct toward any play which features a minister and a church is to run from the theater. I expect to see the familiar satirical take on religion, going for the all too easy laugh. While The Book of Mormon has been praised and rewarded as being shocking and revolutionary, in fact, itís this quiet little work which should gain our praise. What playwright Lucas Hnath has done is truly courageous; he shows us people of faith who are good, decent human beings holding on to what they believe, even though it may cost them what they cherish.

The staging used by director Les Waters is unique, and for the most part, effective. The show opens on what is obviously a church, complete with choir, Yamaha organ, complex lighting, and a huge cross. All the players, who use mics to communicate even the most personal discussions, are onstage.

Andrew Garman and Larry Powell

Chief among them is the obvious leader of what we learn is a massive congregation, Pastor Paul (Andrew Garman). As he preaches his sermon, heís looked on with adoring eyes by his wife, Elizabeth (Linda Powell). Seated with her are Paulís associate pastor, Joshua (Larry Powell) and a church elder, Jay (Philip Kerr).

Itís a day of celebration. The church, which started with humble beginnings, is now out of the debt that was incurred by building a massive edifice which now serves unimagined numbers of members. Itís taken years, and a lot of effort, but at last, theyíre free. Is it a coincidence that Pastor Paul now chooses to pass along his new found revelation? At a religious conference, Paul has heard the story of a boy who ran into a burning building to save his sister. She lived; he didnít. Paul has agonized over the idea that this noble youth cannot go to heaven because he wasnít saved.† God has spoken to Paul; there is no hell, no devil, and people donít have to believe that they must be born again through Christ to be in a state of grace. God loves us all, no matter what.

This is, to put it mildly, upsetting to many, but especially to Joshua, who has taken some of the students from his youth ministry down to skid row in an attempt to convert sinners.† Paul and Joshua have clashed before. While both men are devout Christians, Joshua is far more Fundamentalist, and more of an Evangelical.† Now, a true schism has been formed, which results in Joshua leaving to start his own church, and many in the congregation choosing to follow him. Even the devoted Jay, long a friend of Paulís and one of the church leaders, cannot abide this radical switch in belief.

When Elizabeth expresses to Paul that she, too, is repulsed by his new doctrine,† Paul is devastated, and the marriage is in peril. We are left wondering what will happen next. To many in the audience, the more liberal view of humanity seems the obvious path, but much to Hnathís credit, he makes all the characters real people, and we can see each oneís sincerity and struggle.

The cast is uniformly excellent. Even Philip Kerr, who has little to do, projects a real honesty. As Jenny, a congregant who expresses her doubts through a paper sheís written, Emily Donahoe winningly gives us a glimpse at what the bulk of the congregation must be thinking. Her simple, touching performance also adds a bit of humor. Joshua could have been played as a scheming villain, but in the hands of Larry Powell, heís empathetic and courageous.† Linda Powell is, as always, classy and compelling. In her off-white suit, complete with light peach blouse and pearls, sheís the perfect elegant wife; sheíll never get drunk or make a gaff that would embarrass her minister husband. And when she finally gets to talk privately with Paul, she exhibits the strength and heartfelt sorrow of a woman who sees she must make her own path. (Itís through these intimate moments that the open mic technique fails and seems intrusive.) Thank heaven for Andrew Garman, who gives us a man of God whoís both passionate and compassionate,† who adores his wife, and truly wishes to lead his flock on the right path. Thereís no doubt why his parishioners have loved him and followed him.

As one who doesnít belong to any particular religion, I began thinking about what it means to be Born Again. I donít understand any creed which indoctrinates members to embrace the concept that their church is the only route to heaven. I donít comprehend how intelligent women can actually believe that they are not as fit as men to serve as ministers, which of course, is also true of the Roman Catholic church. We are told that Hnathís mother became an Evangelical minister, and that Elizabeth has led bible study.

I asked a friend of mine, a very well educated member of Mensa, who is devoted to her religion to briefly explain the tenets to me. She informed me that according to her Christian faith, women are not only not allowed to be ministers, theyíre also not allowed to speak at conventions, and may only conduct bible study groups if no man is present. A woman may divorce her husband, but may not remarry if he hasnít committed adultery. The congregants take the bible literally, and are certain that the resurrection will come, and that weíll all be given back our bodies. At that time, all will be equal.† As to schisms in her hometown of Tulsa, for the Baptists alone there are 427different church sects, each absolutely convinced that their way is the true way.

So how are we to know what to believe, and if we choose, which church to join? As far as religion is concerned, the line in South Pacific expresses it best: You have to be carefully taught. And understand that if you choose to deviate from the dogma which has been imparted to you as absolute truth, others may choose not to stay in your altered place of worship with you.

Playwrights Horizons, †416 W. 42nd St., 212-564-1235,

Through October 11, 2015; 90 minutes, no intermission

† Author, Lucas Hnath; director, Les Waters†††††† Cast: Emily Donahoe (Jenny), Andrew Garman (Pastor Paul), Philip Kerr (Jay), Larry Powell (Joshua), Linda Powell (Elizabeth)