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Playwright Lucas Hnath takes us to church in a provocative consideration of religious life, individual and organizational.
Playwright Lucas Hnath is not one for conventional theatrics. His play Isaac’s Eye (seen here at Writers Theatre), is part historical lecture, part whole-cloth fiction about Isaac Newton. Hillary and Clinton, which premiered last spring at Victory Gardens, peeks in on an alternate-universe version of the presidential candidate during the 2008 race. Hnath’s upcoming Broadway debut is an unauthorized Ibsen sequel titled A Doll’s House, Part 2.
The Christians, receiving a thoughtful Chicago premiere at Steppenwolf, is no exception. The 80-minute play takes the form of a service at an evangelical megachurch, complete with praise music (it’s well worth arriving early for the choir’s preshow warmup) and a central sermon from the church’s leader, Pastor Paul (an appreciably direct Tom Irwin, acing the cadence and character of contemporary preaching).
Paul’s sermon presents his congregation with a theological conundrum: The pastor has ceased to believe in a literal Hell, and unilaterally declares this church he founded no longer believes in Hell, either. But Paul chose not to consult with anyone else before making this proclamation from the pulpit, and not everyone who hears it is ready for such a radical change.
Contemporary American culture, whether theater, film, television or literature, sometimes treats characters and concerns like these with low esteem, or betrays a clear sense of which side the author considers right. Not so here; every character—including a dissenting associate pastor (Glenn Davis), the leader of the board of elders (Robert Breuler), the pastor’s wife (Shannon Cochran) and a conflicted parishioner (a terrific Jacqueline Williams)—is depicted with nuance and compassion, and the philosophical rift that develops among them treated with serious consideration.
It’s not hard to see parallels with more secular types of “congregations,” actually—say, institutional theaters. Listen to longtime ensemble member Irwin relating the church’s growth from storefront to sanctuary, with all the competing interests and fiduciary concerns inherent therein, and you could imagine The Christians as a parable for Steppenwolf itself. Hnath’s use of worship-service tropes may turn off some congregants—if real-life church makes you itchy, K. Todd Freeman’s faithful staging might provoke a similar reaction. But it’s a serious and stimulating engagement with a corner of American life the theater rarely takes on.
Steppenwolf Theatre Company. By Lucas Hnath. Directed by K. Todd Freeman. With Tom Irwin, Glenn Davis, Robert Breuler, Jacqueline Williams, Shannon Cochran. Running time: 1hr 20mins; no intermission.