At Steppenwolf, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
There's no question that the Downstairs Theater at Steppenwolf has been transformed into a megachurch. Yes, it's much smaller than the thousand-seat arena chapel in which The Christians takes place, but nonetheless, the resemblance is uncanny even before the play begins. A five-piece choir warms up and sings contemporary praise songs onstage, hitting that ubiquitous balance of gloss and solemnity. Walt Spangler's set features rich purple carpeting and several oversized screens, which supplement the songs and sermons. If you've ever attended services at a megachurch, this really offers an eerie likeness.
It's no coincidence that the atmosphere is so accurate: Playwright Lucas Hnath (pronounced "nayth") grew up in the congregation of an Orlando megachurch, and his mother was a hospice chaplain. Director Todd K. Freeman's father was a deacon. Both men's backgrounds are boons to this production, not just because they are familiar with the subject matter, but because they are able to take it seriously.
These days it's unusual, almost transgressive, to see a play about a Protestant church that isn't satirical. In fact, the first 15 minutes or so of The Christians seem like an extended wait for a punchline. But while there is some wry humor in Hnath's script, the play is no joke. Pastor Paul (Tom Irwin) has led his congregation for 20 years, developing it from a humble storefront church into a commercial colossus, complete with a bookstore, coffee shop, and at least one escalator. Now, seemingly overnight, Pastor Paul's beliefs have changed. His new doctrine of radical acceptance — complete with an open-door policy for salvation — creates a schism in his church and his home.
The Christians never retreats from its subject matter. Quite the opposite, in fact. The entire play is presented as a church service: Even the most intimate conversations between Pastor Paul and his wife (a moving Shannon Cochran) happen on the altar and are delivered through the same invasive handheld microphones that are used during sermons. Perhaps most disconcertingly, the house lights remain lit throughout most of the 80-minute play, forcing playgoers into the role of congregants. It's effective, if a little distracting: On opening night, each time Pastor Paul led his congregation in prayer, a dozen heads in the first few rows of the theater dutifully bowed.
Irwin mines a rich performance from Pastor Paul's certainty, shifting from hubris to humility as he faces criticism, notably from his Associate Pastor (Glenn Davis) and a troubled Congregant (Jacqueline Williams). It's absolutely gripping to watch Davis and Irwin go toe-to-toe as two principled and educated people who are unable to reconcile their disparate, honestly held beliefs. Unfortunately, other talented members of the ensemble are burdened with dialogue that is too heavy with exposition. Characters in The Christians frequently begin sentences along the lines of "You've said yourself that…" and "I don't need to remind you that…", a contrivance that feels unnecessary for a play that is already trusting its audience to take a stylistic leap of faith.
Hnath's play asks thoughtful and complicated questions, and under Freeman's direction, the production is unafraid of alienating its audience in pursuit of answers. At times, that alienation seems perfectly executed — after all, that's exactly what Pastor Paul's new doctrine does to his congregation — but sometimes it is simply unnerving.