Schisms and Sparks

Dayton Theatre Guild examines faith and family in “The Christians”

Cast of “The Christians” rehearsing (l-r) Steve Strawser, Richard Young, Thor Sage. Photo: Rick Flynn

By Lisa Bennett

“The Christians” takes a raw look at what it means to be a community.

When I was a kid, my family had a routine. Every Sunday morning like clockwork, my siblings and I would be treated to mom’s amazing pancakes and then hauled off to church dressed in our Sunday best. We didn’t mind. Even though we barely comprehended what most of the services were about, the little 10-15 minute skits performed at the end of each sermon by some of the lady parishioners would sum it up in a way we kids understood. More often than not, we would file out of church still laughing about the day’s performance.

When I saw the title, “The Christians”, I was immediately drawn back to the days of Aunt Elsie’s larger-than-life stage antics and petite grandma Mildred’s bad impressions of Moses with her fake beard always on crooked as she read her script. I laughed out loud.

Raw Honesty

“The Christians”, however, is a far cry from the silly, Sunday afternoon performances at church. It is a profoundly moving and emotionally raw look at how a split within a church can affect the community it touches. When asked if people of other faiths would want to see the play, Director Lorrie Sparrow-Knapp responds, “Christianity is not always a glowing poster child these days towards everyone, so why would you come see a show called “The Christians?” Because it’s about faith and it’s about tolerance and not about the political aspects of faith. It is about human beings struggling to figure out what they believe.” Adding, “It’s a play about understanding what you believe. It’s also a play about how beautiful religion can be and how beautiful faith can be and also about one person’s journey deeper into faith.” Sparrow-Knapp explains that while the play is set in a Christian context, the concepts about faith and community are universal. “The Christians” is about a family breaking up and why people believe what they believe. It’s a virtual layer cake of courage, hubris, transformation, and most of all, hope. It speaks to the heart of humanity, regardless of what spiritual path you follow because in its bare essence, it is a play about being human. It is honest, real, and raw because there is no message about salvation being pushed, and no call to spiritual arms. It could literally be about any religion, any faith and that makes it all the more appealing, at least in my own humble opinion.

That being said, the play is not a realism play. The actors all speak on microphones the entire time to capture the nuances of emotion that would otherwise be lost. The audience is also a big part of the production, becoming part of the congregation. And that is what good theater is about. Good theater allows you to become lost in the midst of what’s happening around you live, allowing the full impact of what is being portrayed and said to play with your senses. What is lost in realism however, is gained by the sheer honesty of the script, which is written in verse, and the Shakespearean flavor of the play. The alliteration, the pause, and the verse playwright Lucas Hnath embeds into the play are simply and utterly remarkable.

Crisis of Faith

Even more remarkable are his characters. Pastor Paul, a successful leader who brought the congregation from a small church to a thriving megachurch, is a three-dimensional, deeply spiritual character who struggles with his own beliefs. Far from a simplistic, good or bad character, his troubled monologues mumbled into the microphone reveal a complex personality lost in a crisis of faith. Hnath’s ability to create extraordinary layers, not only within his characters, but also within the play itself, makes him one of the hottest new playwrights of the decade. His intention of allowing the schism to read like a difficult divorce is echoed in the Pastor’s conflict with Joshua and even his own family. Hnath doesn’t take sides. He brilliantly allows the audience to decide for themselves what has value and what should be discarded. His neutrality is reflected in his choice of settings as well. While Hollywood tends to turn to the good old South for religious settings, Hnath instead uses a generic, American church. Though Hnath reveals nothing of his own personal religious path in the play or his personal views of Christianity for that matter, it is obvious that he did a great deal of research before writing the play. His script reads fluent Christian, which makes the whole production that much more believable.

Besides the impeccable story line and the dramatic scenes played out beneath the dazzling Fresnel lights, is the breath-taking, sing-to-your-soul music that encompasses every aspect of the production. The music alone is worth making a trip out. “The Christians” is a far cry from amateur theater. It is truly one of the most honest, real, thought provoking plays to make the stage this year. But don’t take my word for it. Go see it for yourself. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

The Christians runs Nov. 17- Dec. 3 at the Dayton Theatre Guild, 430 Wayne Avenue in Dayton. For more information visit http://www.DaytonTheatreGuild.org/ or call 937.278.5993.

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Lisa Bennett
Reach DCP freelance writer Lisa Bennett at LisaBennett@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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