A tragedy is unfolding at Steppenwolf Theatre, a good thing for audiences, less so for the denizens of Lucas Hnath’s The Christians. In this show, with powerful performances by Glenn Davis, Shannon Cochran, Tom Irwin and Robert Brueler, the show stopper is Jacqueline Williams’ marvelous turn in the role of Congregant - she is a revelation.
Pastor Paul (Tom Irwin) is operating a mega- church, one that has grown exponentially from fundamentalist storefront to a building so big it has a coffee shop, retail store, and a parking lot you could get lost in. Exponential expansion incurred debt, which the board of directors, led by Elder Jay (Robert Breuler) has struggled to discharge.
The play opens amid a mega-church service rendered so faithfully - huge backlit cross, melodious music, passionately performed; a serious scripture read - that a number of audience members joined in the prayers. Pastor Paul then delivers the sermon that sows chaos: the church, he says, is at a turning point – it is now debt free; but something else has gone awry. He no longer believes in that pillar of dualist theology, hell fire. Irwin’s discursive recount of this radical change in heart is delivered with a hint of irony, and at a pace faster than a real sermon – reminding us we are not in church, but in a theater.
In due time, the congregation starts to come apart at the seams. Associate Pastor (Glenn Davis) challenges this heresy, and is released of his duties. Elder Jay counsels Pastor Paul, in an eldering, indirect monolog, advising him of the folly of turning out his very popular associate preacher.
Then Congregant (Jacqueline Williams) arises during worship, and reads a letter of her reflections, begun in a self-effacing and unassuming manner, then swelling to emotional poignance, even majesty, as she picks apart Pastor Paul for forsaking the congregation’s need for faith, accusing him of a lack of sincerity in waiting until the after the mortgage was paid off.
The wind-down of the drama finds Pastor Paul again challenged by his Associate Pastor. Glenn Davis’ performance of a combative theological and emotional challenge rivaled that of Williams. And finally, Pastor’s Wife Elizabeth (Shannon Cochran) takes Pastor Paul on her own terms, struggling with the compromises he has inflicted on his family. And asserting she does not share his belief.
These performances all on their own justify a trip to Steppenwolf Theatre, and the writing of this play. Directed obviously so well by K. Todd Freeman, The Christians runs through January 29, 2017, and is highly recommended.