THEATER REVIEW: Questioning the Nature of Belief in The Christians at Wilma

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Erika LaVonn and Paul DeBoy in The Christians at the Wilma Theater. (Photo by Alexander Iziliaev)

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

The Bible is full of promises to the faithful, though most are unlikely to be realized during our temporary stay on earth; also, they’re fairly vague. So it falls to emissaries — pastors and the like — to give us clearer directives on the correct path to everlasting glory.

But “Time is filled with swift transitions,” as the church choir sings in Lucas Hnath’s sly, thought-provoking The Christians, now on stage in a marvelous production at the Wilma. We regularly encounter difficult situations that test our faith. And what happens if we’re wrong — if what we thought was the path to righteousness isn’t what we’ve been taught? Will our spiritual leaders have the honesty and fortitude to tell us?

In just such a moment, in a local church somewhere in America, Pastor Paul takes the pulpit, and preaches that he no longer believes Hell is a physical place — it is, he now realizes (after a private conversation with God), more of a state of mind.

Paul’s announcement is brave, risky, foolhardy, or cynically, even ruthlessly timed (his large church has only just pulled out of debt) — it depends on who you ask. But what is clear is that within minutes, a congregation that initially looked like a perfect, multi-racial happy place is torn asunder. While Paul goes one way, Associate Pastor Joshua and Church Elder Jay will go another. Where the parishioners — and Paul’s supportive wife, Elizabeth — will land is uncertain.

In 85 taut minutes, Hnath launches a discussion on the fundamental nature of belief with a level of nuance I couldn’t have imagined. Paul’s initial revelation is, I think, heard by a large percentage of the audience as welcome and humane. Yet over the course of the play, we have many reasons to question it — and our own convictions. For example, there’s the moment when Jenny, a timid member of the choir, steps forward to talk to Pastor Paul, in a game-changing monologue that is funny and heartbreaking, sometimes all at once (actress Julie Jesneck is marvelous here).

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Julie Jesneck and Paul DeBoy in The Christians at the Wilma Theater. (Photo by Alexander Iziliaev)

Most admirably, Hnath never condescends to any character or belief — these are good people, grappling with big, difficult ideas, and doing the best they can. That’s what makes it so damnably hard — and so compelling to watch.

The structure of The Christians is as out-of-the-box as its themes. Initially, we seem to be watching a real church service, realistic to the smallest detail. Gradually, Hnath introduces other elements — we move out of the church and into private conversations, while the scenery and basic style don’t change. It’s a daring break in convention, and I think some audiences will be thrown off — but the sense of disorientation brilliantly echoes the play’s bigger issues.

All of this is delivered in a pitch-perfect co-production by Wilma and Syracuse Stage, directed by Tim Bond. The actors are excellent – in addition to the aforementioned Julie Jesneck, they include Ames Adamson (Elder Jay), DeLance Minefee (Joshua), Erika LaVonn (Elizabeth – she’s especially good), and Paul DeBoy (Pastor Paul).

The presence of the exuberant Philadelphia Community Choir lends authenticity, and their rafter-raising singing gets the audience on its feet. In the end, though, it’s Hnath’s bold, beautiful play that is the greatest cause for rejoicing.

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The Philadelphia Community Choir in The Christians at the Wilma Theater. (Photo by Alexander Iziliaev)


The Christians runs through May 29. For more information, visit the Wilma Theater website.

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