Epic Theatre's production of Lucas Hnath's "The Christians," is not only a riveting, thoughtful, well-directed drama filled with fine acting, it's on stage now, in a church near you. And you can — and should — catch a performance.
Hnath (pronounced Nayth) is the same playwright who wrote "Hillary and Clinton," currently on Broadway, and "A Doll's House, Part 2," which were both applauded by critics. Nayth has gained a reputation for getting audiences to think, to weigh, to ponder and to look at all sides of controversial issues. Certainly he succeeded in doing so with this gem of a production.
Veteran Rhode Island actor Vince Petronio directs the play, on stage through May 17 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of South County in Peace Dale. Epic paired with the church — and with Music 'n' More at Lily Pads — so the play could be staged in a church and to continue with the "theater's mission to bring engaging modern theater to all corners of the state," according to Epic Artistic Director Kevin Broccoli, and to "step outside the box yet again."
Petronio, who directed Hnath's "Red Speedo," by the swimming pool at the Boys & Girls Club of Pawtucket a few years ago, told me that Hnath's plays are often "site specific." Thus the swimming pool and the church.
"The Christians," which takes place on the stage of a megachurch, with a choir on stage, facing the audience, begins with the church's leader, Pastor Paul (Geoff Leatham) delivering some stunning remarks.
Leatham, a Richmond resident who has performed on many a local stage is a powerhouse. Petronio, who directs the play with subtlety, was wise to cast Leatham as the charismatic leader of thousands of faithful followers. Leatham, an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Rhode Island's Harrington School of Communication (Petronio is also a professor in the department,) has a natural, commanding presence. A presence augmented by his talent. When Leatham, as Pastor Paul, delivers his remarks — a close to ten minute monologue — we pay attention. He draws us in. We listen attentively as Pastor Paul tells us about meeting his future wife on an airplane, when he had "a powerful urge to communicate" with the beautiful woman wearing a pink pantsuit. And we listen attentively as he tells us that he now has the powerful urge to communicate with his flock — to tell them that it's okay not to believe in hell. It's okay not to believe in hell, he says, because maybe hell doesn't exist.
After watching a non-believer die while saving his sister from a fire, Pastor Paul tells his congregation, he began to question the existence of hell. And then, in a conversation he had with God while sitting on the toilet, his questions were answered. (Hnath also has a sense of humor, and despite the complicated topic, there are plenty of opportunities to laugh.)
"We are no longer a church that believes in hell," Pastor Paul declares.
The pastor's radical announcement fractures the parish in two, with some members following Associate Pastor Joshua (Jomo Peters) to a new — yet traditional church. Peters — also a powerhouse but in a quiet, gentle way — is excellent.
"I find myself wrestling with your sermon because it seems to go against everything we believe," Brother Joshua says calmly. "We believe in Satan and we believe in hell."
As the two debate the theology of hell, Satan and sin — one dressed in all white and the other in black — they use the Bible to prove their points, and read from passages that support their theses. Without rancor.
When a young single mother (Stephanie Traversa) nervously stands up to read the letter she has written about the turmoil she's been experiencing since Pastor Paul's announcement, a new perspective is offered. When Paul's wife, Elizabeth (Paula Faber is also perfectly cast) who has been quietly sitting in the congregation stands to weigh in, there's yet another. Meanwhile, the once-powerful church is crumbling, as are the relationships upon which it has been built. Where do we stand?
Richard Noble, as Jay, a church elder, is quite good, as is the music — mostly gospel hymns sung by the actors and a small choir made up of Courtney Stafford, Erin Malcolm and Production Manager Samantha Gaus — at the the beginning, in the middle and at the end of the play — accompanied by the director, strumming an acoustic guitar.
"The theme of this season is conviction," Broccoli said in a statement. "I think this plays embodies that idea more than any other play we've worked on so far. It's a fascinating look at faith that asks really difficult questions without seeking to alienate whoever might be sitting in the audience looking for answers."