Hyde Park Theatre's The Christians is remarkable in its compassion for its characters' beliefs
Reviewed by Elizabeth Cobbe, Fri., March 20, 2015
I fear this will turn out to be one of those reviews that says more about the critic than it does about the show. But really, how could it not?
The Christians by Lucas Hnath is a play about a church. The pastor, Paul (Ken Webster), has built his once-tiny congregation into a megachurch, with a vast parking lot and an expensive building they've just paid off. One day, he delivers a sermon in which he declares an end to the belief that nonbelievers are doomed to hell. What might seem like a small thing or an easy theological sidestep eventually rips apart Paul's congregation, starting with the departure of his associate pastor Joshua (Joey Hood) and reaching all the way to his decades-old marriage to Elizabeth (Katherine Catmull).
In my 15 or so years of regular attendance at professional theatre productions, I have seen actors and playwrights portray murderers, bank robbers, royalty, and space aliens, and nearly always they do so with greater ease than they do characters who practice a religion. It's something about the broad assumptions theatre artists make from living in a climate in which church seems to only make headlines when it involves opposition to abortion or homosexuality, and the concepts that rest at the heart of the faith become cartoonlike.
Not this time. Hyde Park Theatre's production of The Christians is remarkable in that the cast honors the script and the story by giving performances that are authentic to the characters. No one is mocked, even in a story that pits one version of Christianity that's easier for a secular humanist to digest against one that to many theatre audiences, especially in Austin, might seem exclusionary and merciless. They are compassionate. Regardless of what happens in the play, that ability to give caring insight into a whole worldview makes this a rewarding production. It opens the way to understanding.
Especially strong are moments in which Joshua describes his understanding of hell, and when Jenny (Jessica Hughes), a struggling single mom who sings in the choir, builds up the courage to challenge Paul herself. Whether or not one agrees with a single mom's choice to give 20% of her income to a church, it is a beautiful and, again, compassionate thing to offer a glimpse into the heartfelt passion that moves her to do so, time and time again.
Webster's Paul is a tricky character, one who is told he fails to connect on an individual level and who talks about the distance he sees between himself and others. At the same time, a man capable of building a church empire must also have some charisma, even if he struggles to be truly present with other people. A great actor, Webster's remoteness occasionally overshadows his passion.
A life of faith is punctuated with crises of doubt. These moments are so intensely internal that making a play out of a string of frightened confrontations with doubt seems nearly impossible. The Christians is remarkable in its compassionate rendering of a difficult story and characters who might not make a lot of sense to those who don't participate in that sort of community. It's what theatre can do at its greatest: open up the possibility for us to know each other as human.
The ChristiansHyde Park Theatre, 511 W. 43rd, 512/479-7529
Through March 28
Running time: 1 hr., 30 min.