Lucas Hnath’s The Christians, receiving its Bay Area premiere in a fine production under Bill English’s direction at SF Playhouse, starts with what seems to be a simple story. When a 17-year old Muslim boy runs into a burning grocery store and dies saving his seven-year old sister, his body shielding her from the flames, what happens to him? He’s a hero, of course. But what happens to his soul?
Pastor Paul thinks he knows what his flock thinks, and what Christians think more generally. He would like them to think otherwise -- that this heroic young Muslim will not be going to hell but instead to heaven. And so in the sermon that opens the play, Paul cannily works the story into a larger one about the congregation's financial status, the first time Paul met his wife, and the need for radical change.
We know that Paul is manipulating his congregants, that the way he constructs his sermon is designed to catch people off guard. His techniques include subtle threats (“There is a crack in the foundation of this church”), a subtle eroticism (“I have a powerful urge to communicate with you”), and declarations of strength (“We are no longer that kind of church").
Yet we overlook Paul's machinations. After all, what he’s preaching is what we should believe: that all souls are equal, that goodness matters, and that it would be a sick injustice to entertain for even a moment that such a heroic young man should go to hell for simply not finding Christ. In a just world, Christ should find him.
One of the chief pleasures of The Christians is that we’re not so much enmeshed in a drama, as we are in the drama of a theological debate. The play not only begins with a sermon, but also in tone and structure resembles a church service. There’s a full choir; an associate pastor, Joshua; a church elder, Jay; and Paul’s wife Elizabeth who leads a women’s bible study group. As in many churches, these leaders sit in a row before us and take their turns performing various aspects of the liturgy.
What we know of the past is set up by Paul’s simple and direct narration of events: “And Brother Joshua says,” “And Elder Jay walks into my office,” “And I look at my wife and say.” And then those scenes are reenacted, not realistically, but as they might be in a church service -- kind of stilted, not quite dramatic, and with microphones. It’s a curiously moving effect, as if everyone is trying to contain the emotion that amplification threatens to unleash.
Though The Christians is filled with scenes of high drama, its form and presentation -- ably supported by a slew of excellent, understated performances -- are low-key. Paul’s belief that his church must undergo a radical change roils everyone around him, and yet the proceedings remain polite and curiously distant. Hnath catches the way the rituals and temperament of the suburban Protestant Church demand a decency of spirit even when caught in the midst of overwhelming emotion.
Scenes that would normally descend into the melodramatic take on a complexity and richness that’s disconcerting. Associate pastor Joshua would be a classic villain in most American plays. He’s a moral scold, ambitious, and needlessly confrontational. And worse, his reaction to Paul’s sermon about the Muslim boy who dies saving his little sister, is that the boy will go to hell. Yet his belief in hell guides him to behave in ways that are truly exemplary.
The play ends with the possible dissolution of Paul and Elizabeth’s marriage, as they debate over the nature of Christ’s salvation. She too, like Joshua, refuses to give up on hell. It’s ludicrous to watch two people fight while carefully speaking into microphones and pretending to have a private conversation. But the aesthetic awkwardness is freeing.
We aren’t watching a couple argue, but rather a careful reconstruction of that argument as an expression of ritual and faith. And because of this, we listen with great care and follow a set of conventions that aren’t so much dramatic, as they are about what it means to believe. These are people for whom Christ's love and demands are real and so their personal drama is always at a remove. The real action is how to live in the face of such stringent and beautiful beliefs.
That’s a shocking achievement, and for this alone, The Christians is worthy of our attention. It’s an impressive play all the way to the end -- and then for some reason Hnath doesn’t finish the job. We never get to the end of the service and formal closure. What happens to Pastor Paul doesn't matter, but the completion of the ritual does. Without that lens, the play's ending feels like a rejection of everything the playwright has accomplished up to then. And I guess my most damning critique is that in its concluding moments, The Christians feels like a play.
'The Christians' runs through Saturday, Mar. 11 at SF Playhouse in San Francisco. For tickets and information click here.