|Anthony Fusco & the Cast of “The Christians”|
Eerily, it does immediately feel as if we are in a church rather than the San Francisco Playhouse that we thought we had entered (although maybe the glasses of wine many of us still have in our hands is a dead give-away of the true location). Before us is another incredible, Bill-English-designed set that smacks of something seen when flipping the TV remote and landing on a mega-church service. Light-colored, paneled walls are punctuated with deeply hued, stain-glass windows – one embedded with a huge cross — and large video screens show soothing scenes of clouds, fields, and forests. A sixteen-person choir enters in cross-embroidered robes and begins gently to sing and sway the hymn “Holding Onto God’s Unchanging Hand,’ soon followed by rhythmic clapping and testifying through their contagiously engaging voices, “Catch on Fire.” By the time the Pastor steps forward to ask everyone to bow heads for prayer, I look sheepishly around the theatre audience to see if that means us, too.
The evangelical realism of the church service continues for at least a few more minutes in San Francisco Playhouse’s production of Lucas Hnath’s 2015 Off-Broadway, much-acclaimed play, The Christians. As Pastor Paul begins to introduce his four-part sermon (“Where Are We Today, A Powerful Urge, The Fires of Hell, A Radical Change”), it is difficult not to wonder if eventually we are going to hear a call for us as audience members to walk the aisles to be saved from damnation. Everything is headed in that direction as we first listen to his pulsating preaching how this mega-church of thousands with its pool-size baptismal (and lobby coffee shop) is now debt-free and heaven-bound and then notice that his tone and demeanor is turning ever more serious toward that third subject, “The Fires of Hell.”
|Lance Gardener & Anthony Fusco|
Challenging the Pastor in front of the entire congregation that Sunday morning is his mentoree and Assistant Pastor, Joshua. Lance Gardner is the bold, somewhat brash, young minister whose intensity of belief is visceral, sincere, and believable. While he agrees with Pastor Paul’s conclusion that “There’s a crack in the foundation of this Church,” his view of what that crack is and who is causing it is wildly different from the senior minister’s. With evangelist fervor and conviction, he is ready to push his own views to the edge of that crack, even if it means that the church he and Pastor Paul have together built from a storefront to a mega empire may come tumbling down like the walls of Jericho.
More unsettling confrontations of Pastor Paul’s new-found discoveries of what is truth and what is not come from two women, including a single-mother congregant whom he and the church helped get through difficult personal and financial times. Millie Brooks, as choir member and congregant Jenny, begins her “testimony” from the pulpit with timid voice and almost child-like mannerisms as she speaks to the congregation and to the nearby, beaming, and proud Pastor Paul. However, once she then pulls out a pre-written document and begins to raise question after question to the soon-sweating and clearly nervous Pastor – now facing him directly eye-to-eye — her Jenny becomes a persistent prosecutor whose drilling inquiries have profound effects on all listening.
|Anthony Fusco & Warren David Keith|
The character of Elder Jake, played with the quiet reserve and sagacity of age by Warren David Keith, opens up Mr. Hnath’s play beyond the warring dynamics of religious leaders and their congregations to include the realm of non-profit executive directors and their boards of directors. His gentle efforts at coaching the head pastor — so full of obvious affection based on their long past together in the boardroom and the family dining room — is also full of words not spoken but ever-more evident in his lowered tone, his stiffening posture, and his troubled brow. Anyone who has ever experienced board-executive dynamics immediately can relate and find totally credible his difficult position as both friend and foe.
|Anthony Fusco & Stephanie Prentice|
There is also a constant use of hand-held microphones throughout the entire play, even in moments of husband/wife bedroom talk or in gripping moments of private confrontations between the Pastor and his Assistant. Coupled with the Pastor often inserting “he said” or “she said” to introduce the next spoken piece by him or another character, the otherwise naturally flowing dialogues take on a staged, stilted feeling that is after a while, quite disrupting. Maybe the playwright is trying to underscore some of the aspects of a televangelist always being in the public eye with nothing he thinks, says, or does being all that private in the long run. Or maybe the inserted words that make this sound like a read-aloud story are to imply his own need for control of those around him or his own self-sense of omniscience. Whatever the purpose, the devices detract more than enable the play’s message, in my opinion.