“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting,” wrote Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton. “It has been found difficult; and left untried.”
In Lucas Hnath’s play “The Christians,” now at Citadel Theatre, the popular pastor of a megachurch tries something truly difficult. Inspired by the story of a non-Christian boy who dies saving his sister from a fire, the pastor tells his flock that the boy does not go to hell, as their brand of Christianity teaches. Instead, the boy is sitting with God. Nobody’s going to hell, because Christ’s sacrifice saved us all.
This sermon doesn’t go over well with his congregants, who have just paid off the church’s massive debt. They like their big church with its coffee shop and daycare center, as well as the promise of eternal damnation for the sinful. The sermon causes a schism, and Pastor Paul (played by Citadel artistic director Scott Phelps) sticks to his radical vision and sees his tidy world come apart.
Paul’s sermon is challenged by Joshua, an associate pastor played with messianic zeal and scruffy sex appeal by Manny Sevilla. Joshua is a true believer in hell—and gives a scary speech explaining why. Paul’s smiling, helpful wife (Phelps’ real-life wife, Ellen Phelps) is also skeptical of her husband’s new direction, and Jay, a church elder played with chilly reasonableness by Frank Nall, worries that the money’s going to stop coming in.
This is a thoughtful play with a spectacular production design. To create the setting of a megachurch in its tiny 125-seat theater, Citadel uses large digital video monitors to represent the church’s expansive interior—with its thousands of seats—and a choir (members of the singing group Forte Chicago). The digital monitors occasionally show the audience to itself. A congregant named Jenny (Abby Chafe) follows the pastor around with a video camera, while Paul also narrates his own actions. Reflecting our social media-poisoned world, everyone in “The Christians” knows they are being watched all the time. Rather than being gimmicky, the monitors add drama and scope to what would otherwise be a very talky show.
Scott Phelps gives a strong, nuanced performance as a man used to ease and popularity who stumbles onto something real. He doesn’t want to drop his radical vision, but the other characters make us question if he should. Shouldn’t he have some tolerance for the intolerant? Shouldn’t he remember all the good the church has done before he throws it away? Jenny, who lives on food assistance to give more to the collection, is particularly eloquent—why is he suddenly preaching tough ideas now that the church is out of debt? Her promise that she will “pray” for Pastor Paul shimmers with menace.
“The Christians” is reminiscent of the “Grand Inquisitor” story in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov,” which imagines the second coming of Christ. Religious authorities put the reborn Christ in prison, because those miracles are interfering with the work of the church.
Under the direction of Scott Westerman, the play moves at a rapid pace without intermission, only dragging toward the end when the outcome is clear. Some shows will include post-show discussions, led by local spiritual leaders. This play asks questions that it doesn’t answer, and the audience will have plenty to talk about, long after the screens flicker out.
“The Christians,” Citadel Theatre, 300 South Waukegan Road, Lake Forest, citadeltheatre.org, (847)735-8554. Through March 12.