The first 10 minutes of “The Christians” made me feel trapped. A church altar served as the entire stage, and the audience took the place of the congregation. I wondered how we could spend an entire play in this church. Then as Pastor Paul, played by Noah Konkus ’18 began his sermon — the opening monologue of the play — I anticipated yet another platitude condemning judgmental, evangelical Christianity. Yet the monologue ends in a place far from the conventional. Very quickly I saw that “The Christians” offers anything but a stale, simplistic view of social, religious and spiritual themes.
The project is the subject of the director Hershel Holiday’s ’18 senior project in Yale’s Theater Studies Program. The play, written by Lucas Hnath, has traveled to theaters across the United States and also had a London production since opening in 2015.
As the entire cast assembled together in front of the choir after a few opening and beautifully sung hymns, you see a woman and three men, all dressed in their Sunday best, smiling and tapping their feet to music. They could be the reenactment of the church’s postcard, but with time they discard this one-dimensionality and force the audience to reevaluate their initial estimations of everyone: good and bad, saved and damned.
On the altar in the Whitney Humanities Center auditorium, Konkus fits the perfect picture of a preacher; he delivers his speech with both the earnestness of a rehearsed speaker and the fire of a genuine leader. His corny jokes and friendly face embody the stereotypical image of the televangelist.
But tension immediately follows Pastor Paul’s closing statements rejecting the existence of hell. He moves from a traditional opening to —for this church—an unprecedented declaration of inclusion. Jesus is no longer the only ticket to heaven; the faithful and just are no longer the only ones with a seat at the eternal table.
The play alternates from long monologues like this, delivered by characters in the form of sermons and testimonies, to dialogues full of conflict and questions, like the ensuing debate that moves from reconciliation to personal attack. Each character questions Pastor Paul on his beliefs, his motives, and his responsibility.
Associate Pastor Joshua, played by Liam Elkind ’21, clings to his beliefs for hidden and painful reasons initially overshadowed by his harsh adherence to tradition. His wife Elizabeth, played by Sabrina Clevenger ’18, proves much more than a passive figure stuck to her husband’s side. And as the financial strains of running a church grow increasingly heavy for Pastor Paul, so too does the weight of the souls he so wishes to guide.
At the heart of every struggle is the desire to believe. Even as characters are questioned and occasionally attacked by their ideological counterparts or skeptics, each moment of pain comes from yearning for a faith that seems too far-fetched to believe and too difficult to implement in everyday life. Perhaps what makes the play so compelling is the way it forces the crisis of conscience and identity onto the audience as well. One character, for example, demands that both Pastor Paul and those in attendance contemplate sharing eternal bliss with Hitler.
Though already predisposed towards Christian ideas, I thought Pastor Paul’s message had universal appeal. I began to root for him, to buy into the new direction of his church. And as his beliefs and actions came under attack, I felt under attack myself. After developing a sense of attachment to a fresh, welcoming voice in a setting typically criticized for its intolerance, I began to wonder if I held onto the man more than the message. This confrontation of personal and spiritual is key for everyone on stage. The play unapologetically and aggressively forces the distant, idealistic realm of divinity to answer the passionate, confusing realm of humanity.
The play provides no easy solutions. It would be antithetical for an honest examination of faith to offer a feel-good ending with an answer sheet on the last page of the program.
Just before the play ends, Pastor Paul promises — in darkness — that “we can figure it out later.” And if it will ever be figured out, it must be done so later, for the audience leaves the theater with the questions of the characters fresh in their hearts, spirits, and minds.
Tommy Martin | firstname.lastname@example.org