Photo by North Shore Camera Club
by Samantha Robison
In today’s modern America, which is increasingly obsessed with putting our everyday lives on display for a digital audience, social media has become a sort of new religion in itself. While the youngest slice of the American adult population seems to be shunning organized religion at a rapid rate, and tossing about labels like “cult” with casual ease, their steadfast devotion to the almighty social media culture feels ironic at best.
Lucas Hnath’s “The Christians” casts a self-reflective spotlight on this conversation and takes a plunge into the theological discussion pool, calling into question our afterlife existence. I’ve never seen a play that so poignantly elicits a multitude of unique reactions from the audience throughout the duration. It was abundantly clear how individual lenses were filtering and digesting the story. Moments when many were pondering the seriousness of the bombshell sermon delivered by Pastor Paul (Scott Phelps) and the hypothetical scenario proposed by Jenny (Abby Chafe) in which a murderer would live alongside its victims like “one big, happy family” in heaven, others were outright laughing. I would love to watch the entire show again, but with my back to the stage, observing the audience and taking note of how gender & age shape their reception. But what good would that do me when an outward perspective would grant me no insight into individual belief systems or religious practices, which certainly factor heavily? I suppose that’s another discussion for another day.
Hnath’s excellent writing was made more impactful by Director Scott Westerman’s casting of Scott Phelps in the lead role of Pastor Paul. As the only voice for the first twenty minutes, his entire persona drew instant comparisons to household-name preachers like Joel Osteen. Mary Baca (Costume Designer) styled him perfectly to meet our expectations of a pastor with hoards of adoring followers (and just as many lucrative donations). Alongside his wife, Elizabeth (Ellen Phelps), he confidently entered the auditorium, which had been gloriously transformed to feel like the interior of a megachurch. They shook hands and greeted us with charisma and charm. Acutely aware of their position, the pastor and wife duo cast a spell on us and we converted from audience to congregation.
A tremendous amount of attention and talent was poured into the tech design for “The Christians.” I imagine all components of the production crew found themselves incredibly intertwined in their quest to transform Citadel’s intimate theater into a believable megachurch. The large main screen behind the pulpit projected a pre-recorded five-woman choir. The scale of their images was perfectly proportionate to the live actors, lending authenticity to their presence. Flanked on both sides of the main screen were two smaller, yet sizeably impressive TV monitors. These often projected reflective images of the audience, creating depth and multiplying the size of the “congregation.” I have confidence that the technical glitches that occurred on opening night will be remedied for the duration of their run. It caused ill-timed confusion in the end, when a pivotal moment was playing out. I questioned if the glitches were intentional, looking to add to the chaos that Pastor Paul had been thrown into. However, I suspect that was not the case. Additionally, the four or five pre-recorded videos of the choir, each playing on loop at predisposed times, was an unfortunate jumble of expressions and reactions that were often misaligned with the live action. Their prominent location on stage made it difficult to ignore and I had to urge my focus back. However, their vocals were a magnificent addition to the setting and the story.
The five-person cast was extraordinary, particularly in the back half of the 90-minute performance. Scott Phelps was undeniably the anchor, both in role and talent. Every word of his lengthy monologue sections felt like a spontaneous train of thought. He was entirely engrossed as Pastor Paul. Compared to S. Phelps, the casting felt unbalanced in the beginning, but both Frank Nall as Church Leader Jay and Manny Sevilla as Associate Pastor Joshua, found their stride in later scenes. Hnath’s female characters don’t have large swaths of dialogue compared to the men, but Abby Chafe as Congregant Jenny and Ellen Phelps as the Pastor’s Wife wasted no time leaning into their respective roles. Chafe was particularly profound. She successfully vaulted her character from timid to confident to outraged in a matter of five minutes.
As a cradle Christian, I was impressed by this performance and its thought-provoking narrative. And as a theater-lover, I appreciate Citadel’s ambition to take on the production. Just as Pastor Paul reflected on his hopes for heaven, looking forward to something so marvelous that his “human brain can’t comprehend it,” I commend the cast and crew for taking us on a journey so much bigger than our physical surroundings.
“The Christians” runs through March 12th in Lake Forest.