As the lights dim, while the Motet Choir sings reverently and the character of Pastor Paul delivers an impassioned sermon to the amassed crowd, Bratton Theater will seemingly shift from a stage for the arts to a house of worship.
The Christians, by Lucas Hnath, the first play in Chautauqua Theater Company’s 2019 mainstage season, opens at 8 p.m. tonight. June 28 in Bratton Theater. The show runs through July 14, and places audiences in the pews of a church in turmoil.
But despite the fact Hnath writes in his stage directions that, in a way, “the whole play is a kind of sermon,” audiences are in for a very different experience than the one they would get attending a Sunday service.
The Christians examines what happens when deep-seated faith and a drastic shift in identity collide. Show director Taibi Magar said the play brings up a lot of difficult questions — and it does so intentionally.
“It’s a piece intended to question and spark debate about religion, belief and power structures in how they relate to our daily lives,” Magar said.
In the show, the spark that ignites the fire of debate comes when Paul, the charismatic pastor of an influential megachurch, announces to his congregation that, based on a direct conversation with God, he no longer believes that Hell is real.
Cue the shaking of the congregation to its very core.
And after the church is left truly shocked, Pastor Paul, played by guest artist Jamison Jones, is left to deal with the resounding ripples that tear through each and every one of his relationships. Jones said the play examines how a single change in belief can turn a person’s entire world upside down.
“I think where we get to the heart of the play, is when we look at the external effect of how these changes affect (Pastor Paul’s) interpersonal relationships,” Jones said. “They’re detrimental not just to his life in the church, but to his family as well. They break things in a way that I don’t know I expected.”
The depth and nuance of the play’s narrative proved popular among critics. The Christians premiered Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in 2015, and won the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play in 2016. Hnath himself also won the Kesselring Prize and an Obie Award for Playwriting for The Christians in 2016.
Now that the show is coming to Chautauqua, CTC Artistic Director Andrew Borba wants to assure audiences that, despite the name, The Christians is a show for everyone.
“It’s our job to let the audiences know that it’s not just about being a Christian,” Borba said. “It really is about and does apply to everyone, since it looks at confronting not just our own foundational beliefs, but also what happens when other people in our life confront their foundational beliefs.”
Borba believes the Chautauqua community is the perfect place to stage the play, since Chautauqua is a place committed to lifelong learning and fostering thoughtful conversation, and also a place that is deeply tied to religious understanding and exploration.
To CTC Managing Director Sarah Clare Corporandy, these values of education and faith give Chautauqua audiences a unique perspective on the themes of the show.
“In a place that has a great familiarity with religion and a great history with religion, and also a great sense of community, I think the Chautauquans are going to eat it up,” Corporandy said.
Both Borba and Corporandy agreed that the show’s themes are worth discussing well after the curtain has fallen.
“We are a porch society,” Borba said. “Our experience in the theater doesn’t end when you leave the theater. We will have talk-backs after every show and we also want it to permeate not only your dinner conversation, but also your conversation for the week, for the season.”
But despite the profound themes and intense conflict the show wrestles with, Borba wants prospective audience members to know that The Christians isn’t a lecture; it isn’t all lessons and opinions.