“Sometimes it’s hard to tell which voice is God’s and which is our own wishful self.”—Elizabeth
This quotation is the central theme of Lucas Hnath’s The Christians, currently playing at the Blue Barn Theatre.
I don’t get to say this very often, but this show is absolutely perfect. From top of the line direction, pluperfect acting, a gorgeous church set designed by Martin Scott Marchitto, a dandy little choir, and an intelligent script rippling with multifaceted characters and pristine dialogue, this show is nothing but tens.
Lucas Hnath rose to the challenge when he wrote the story of Pastor Paul, a megachurch pastor who rocks the foundation of his congregation when he announces there is no such place as hell from the pulpit. From that shellshocking declaration, Hnath’s script proceeds to tackle the consequences of that belief.
The power of Hnath’s script is that, aside from asking potent questions about faith, it approaches the subject matter in very non-judgmental fashion. There is neither rancor nor anger between the characters about Pastor Paul’s extreme change of heart. There is only confusion, debate, and discussion as the multiple sides try to understand each other or make another see their point of view. Because of this very wise approach this is a play for everybody from the devout to the uncertain to the non-believer.
Anthony Clark-Kaczmarek departs from his recent high energy comedic roles with a subtle, raw, and revealing performance as Pastor Paul which is certain to put him into the running for Best Actor come awards season. Clark-Kaczmarek’s command of the dialogue is nothing short of astonishing as he delivers his lines with a soft-spoken, nearly hypnotic voice that seems to make every syllable an emotional beat of its own. Clark-Kaczmarek’s interpretation of Pastor Paul is almost Christlike as he is a man of God who is leading his flock down a radical new path just as Jesus did. The question is whether he is leading his people to Heaven or to Hell.
Clark-Kaczmarek’s performance is extraordinary as he navigates the many emotional twists and turns Pastor Paul takes on his trek and he does it with such humanness. Even with Pastor Paul’s new vision, he still wrestles with doubt about the nature, possibly even the existence, of God.
Raydell Cordell III’s performance as Joshua, Pastor Paul’s associate pastor, is a feat of underplayed genius. Cordell’s Joshua is the hardest hit by Pastor Paul’s new message as he was brought to Jesus by the pastor and believes acceptance of Christ as a personal savior is the one and only way to salvation. Cordell brilliantly eschews the easy road of anger for a sad and deep disappointment in Pastor Paul. He openly challenges Pastor Paul’s belief, but does so with an understated frustration which is best exemplified when he and Pastor Paul engage in a debate over interpretation of Bible verses.
Despite his disappointment with Pastor Paul, Cordell also infuses a great loyalty into Joshua’s character. He never gives up on Pastor Paul, even going so far as refusing to supplant him as lead pastor and sharing a story about the death of his mother in a last ditch effort to convince Pastor Paul he is on the wrong path. So earnest is Cordell’s performance that one and all will be deeply moved.
Bill Hutson does no wrong with his turn as Jay, an elder in Pastor Paul’s church. Hutson’s portrayal of Jay is that of a diplomat. He supports Pastor Paul due to their long friendship, but doesn’t agree with his ideas. Hutson ably depicts a man who may be on the cusp of losing his faith. Yes, he does believe in God, but his position on the Board of Directors for the church has had him focused on secular matters rather than spiritual ones and Pastor Paul’s proclamations just may push him away from faith once and for all.
Kaitlyn McClincy rolls a strike in her Blue Barn debut as Jenny, a congregant in Pastor Paul’s church. Ms McClincy’s performance is as heartbreaking as it is illuminating. Her Jenny had nothing before she found Pastor Paul’s church. Divorced and broke, she found salvation, aid, and family with Pastor Paul. In a heart-wrenching monologue which will have tears falling, Ms McClincy talks about having a faith so fervent that she tithed 20% of her meager earnings because she loved God so much and believed in Pastor Paul so much. When she vocally wonders whether all of Pastor Paul’s good words were simply part of an elaborate con game, my heart shattered for her.
Jill Anderson provides a unique twist on the role of the minister’s wife with her portrayal of Elizabeth. Ms Anderson’s Elizabeth does not meekly follow her husband down his rather difficult road. She is strong. She is smart. And she does not accept her husband’s new way of thinking. Ms Anderson gives the audience some interesting food for thought with Elizabeth’s logical argument about the inequality of her marriage with Pastor Paul as he always kept her in the dark about his questions, fears, and messages and is mesmerizing when she is willing to try to save the church by countering Pastor Paul’s message in her own Bible study group.
Susan Clement-Toberer may have topped herself with her direction of this piece. The staging is magnificent. The pacing of the story is rock solid. The coaching of her actors is of championship caliber and she smoothly moves from beat to beat to beat, making the most out of each and every moment.
The Christians is the epitome of transformative theatre. This show is going to give you a lot to think about. Wherever you lie on the spectrum of belief in God, your beliefs are going to be challenged and that is a gift only the best theatre can grant you. As two shows are already sold out, be certain to get a ticket as tonight’s nearly full house is an indicator of the monster hit this show will be.
The Christians plays at the Blue Barn Theatre through April 17. Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 6pm. There is no show on Easter Sunday (March 27) and the March 26 and April 2 shows are sold out. Tickets cost $30 for adults and $25 for students, seniors (65+), T.A.G. members, and groups of 10 or more. For reservations, call 402-345-1576 from 10am-4pm Mon-Fri or visit the Blue Barn website at www.bluebarn.org. The Blue Barn Theatre is located at 1106 S 10th St in Omaha, NE.