Matters of Faith

“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.

“The Christians” to Have Regional Premiere at Blue Barn

Press Photo

The BLUEBARN Theatre is proud to present the regional premiere of The Christians by Lucas Hnath.

BLUEBARN Producing Artistic Director Susan Clement-Toberer directs, with set design by Martin Scott Marchitto, lighting design by Carol Wisner, costume design by Lindsay Pape, sound design by Craig Marsh, projection design by Bill Grennan and properties design by Amy Reiner.

Shows run March 24 – April 17, 2016; Thursday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday April 3, 10, and 17 at 6 p.m. Single tickets for The Christians are $30 for adults; and $25 for students, seniors 65+, TAG members, and groups of 10 or more.

The Christians is generously sponsored by Dr. Amy Haddad and Steve Martin, Roger B. Devor, and Giger Foundation.

Following the Sunday, April 3rd performance, the BLUEBARN Theatre will host a panel discussion with Tri-Faith Initiative featuring Rabbi Azriel from Congregation of Temple Temple Israel, Rev. Elnes from Countryside Community Church, and Dr. Mohiuddin from the American Muslim Institute-AMI.

About The Christians

Twenty years ago, Pastor Paul’s church was nothing more than a modest storefront. Now he presides over a congregation of thousands, with classrooms for Sunday School, a coffee shop in the lobby, and a baptismal font as big as a swimming pool. Today should be a day of celebration. But Paul is about to preach a sermon that will shake the foundations of his church’s belief. A big-little play about faith in America—and the trouble with changing your mind.

About the Stars of The Christians

Award-winning actor Anthony Clark-Kaczmarek returns to the BLUEBARN stage in the pivotal role of Pastor Paul. Anthony was last seen in Arcadia (2003.) Jill Anderson (God of Carnage, BLUEBARN), Raydell Cordell III (A Behanding in Spokane, BLUEBARN), and Bill Hutson (Vieux Carré, BLUEBARN) return to the BLUEBARN stage in the roles of Paul’s wife, Paul’s Associate Pastor, and the church Elder, respectively. Kaitlyn McClincy (Harbor, SNAP! Productions – 2016 OEA Award) also makes her BLUEBARN debut as the young Congregant, Jenny. The Christians also features a live choir to enhance this compelling story: Fred Goodhew, Doug Good, Dan Luethke, Kim McGreevy, Jenna Peterson, Sara Planck, Mike Rosenthal, Erin Stoll, Becky Trecek, Carrie Trecek, Debbie Trecek-Volkens , Homero Vela, and Kelsi Weston.

About the Playwright, Lucas Hnath

Lucas Hnath’s plays include The Christians (2014 Humana Festival), Red Speedo (Studio Theatre, DC), A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney (Soho Rep), nightnight (2013 Humana Festival), Isaac’s Eye (Ensemble Studio Theatre), Death Tax (2012 Humana Festival, Royal Court Theatre), and The Courtship of Anna Nicole Smith (Actors Theatre of Louisville). Lucas has been a resident playwright at New Dramatists since 2011 and is a proud member of Ensemble Studio Theatre. Lucas is a winner of the 2012 Whitfield Cook Award for Isaac’s Eye and a 2013 Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award Citation for Death Tax. He is also a recipient of commissions from the EST/Sloan Project, Actors Theatre of Louisville, South Coast Repertory, Playwrights Horizons, New York University’s Graduate Acting Program, and the Royal Court Theatre.

About the BLUEBARN Theatre

The BLUEBARN Theatre has been bringing professionally-produced plays to area audiences since 1989. Since its inception, BLUEBARN has produced over 100 plays and has established itself as Omaha’s professional contemporary theatre company. Striving to bring artistically significant scripts and professional production values to Omaha and the surrounding region, BLUEBARN is known for high-quality entertainment and the fearless pursuit of stories that challenge both theatre artists and patrons.

Ironically Titled “Slabs” Bursts with Life & Sensitivity

Funerals and memorial services are funny things because they are not for the dead.  They are for the living.  It gives people a chance to say good-bye (or good riddance depending on the relationship), to share stories and memories, and to make peace.  These ideas drive Slabs, an original play written by local actress, Kaitlyn McClincy, and presented as a staged reading on Monday and Tuesday at the Shelterbelt Theatre.

Ms McClincy’s script shows a remarkable amount of promise.  It is a well told story (even the stage directions are a nice bit of prose), is well paced, features some strongly developed characters, and has a brilliant twist in the plot.  Throw in some powerful direction and a cast of talented storytellers and you have all the necessary elements for a fine night of theatre.

Noah Diaz, a relative newcomer to directing, has an instinct for direction that seasoned veterans would envy .  He coached some marvelous performances from his cast, set a nice, steady pace, and displayed an intimate understanding of the beats of the script.

Brent Spencer gave a haunting performance as Walter Clarke, the mortician of his small town.  Walter takes his work very seriously.  He is a stickler for rules and procedures, but he also has a great respect for the dead.  Spencer does excellent work in communicating both the firmness and the sensitivity of Walter.  At one moment, Walter will come down on his subordinates for not following protocol, but in the next he will show tender loving care towards the dead by insisting on replacing a beat up suit with a nice one, demanding that the dead be referred to by their names instead of slabs (the medical school nickname for cadavers), or comforting grieving family members of the departed.

Spencer also gives a nice little bit of social awkwardness to Walter.  He is clearly more comfortable around the dead than the living and often makes weak jokes and puns on death.  Walter is also a workaholic who doesn’t have enough time to spend with his family.  This becomes most apparent in the show’s final monologue as Walter grieves over a corpse that has personal significance to him.  Spencer handles the scene beautifully and several members of the audience shed tears during his speech.

Cathy Hirsch and Jonathan Purcell shine as Nancy Dawson, the funeral home’s office manager, and Henry Rollins, Walter’s apprentice.  Ms Hirsch and Mr. Purcell had a spot on chemistry with each other that was essential for the attraction between the two characters.  The two performers had some of the best scenes of the night with their humorous and witty banter.

As Nancy, Ms Hirsch is the more animated and snarky of the two.  Whether she was lamenting a date that was not to be, telling Henry she had a crush on him to see if he was actively listening, or setting a basketball behind the driver’s seat of the hearse to make Henry think a severed head was rolling around, Ms Hirsch made Nancy the life’s blood of the funeral home with her love of living and her sense of humor.

As Henry, Purcell was the yang to Hirsch’s yin.  Henry was a bit more aloof than Nancy and somewhat misanthropic.  He dropped out of med school due to his dislike of dealing with patients.  Instead, Henry entered mortuary sciences due to its formulaic nature and lack of contact with living people.  But Henry also has a wry, even dark, sense of humor evidenced by a practical joke where Henry made Nancy think a corpse had returned to life. Purcell’s knack for comedy served him well as he ably handled the funny dialogue as well as demonstrated his difficulty in dealing with the living when he has an argument with a rude client (played by Ben Thorp).

Matthew Pyle’s turn as Hank Cartwright is tragic and heavy.  The play opens with the death of his son and Hank embodies the sadder side of death.  Pyle’s Hank is so stricken with grief that he is almost numb.  He’s angry at his son for not being a safer driver, angry at the drunk driver who killed his boy, angry at his son’s girlfriend for asking for a ride home that night, and probably angry at himself for not being the husband his wife needs at this sad time.  Hank doesn’t say much, but Pyle is able to say plenty in the silence with skillful reactions and revealing expressions.

Judy Radcliff has a memorable part as Mrs. Withem, who embodies the happier side of death.  Her husband has recently passed and while she is sad, she chooses to remember the good times.  Ms Radcliff’s Mrs. Withem is a talkative sort who is also prone to making bad jokes about death.  Her charm is infectious and talking about the death of her husband and the little things they did to make each other happy is crucial to helping Pyle’s Hank begin to work through his own crushing grief.

Other strong performances came from Connie Lee who played Emily Cartwright, the grieving wife of Hank, Jim McKain, as a pastor with his own doubts, and Lauren Krupski who did an admirable job with the prosey stage directions.  The only flaw, such as it was, in the performances was that some of the actors needed to speak louder and project more.

Although Ms McClincy has written a very solid script, I did see some room for edits.  An extended joke about a clogged toilet seemed unnecessary for the story and an arc focusing on an ungrateful son needed some more development and a more satisfying conclusion.  With that being said, the script does have an immense amount of potential and I would encourage the Shelterbelt to make this a full scale production in the near future, especially with the caliber of direction and acting displayed in the staged reading.