Review: ‘The Christians’ at SF Playhouse (****)

(Charles Kruger)

Millie Brooks, Anthony Fusco, Lance Gardner, Warren David Keith, and Stephanie Prentice* in "The Christians". Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli.
(from L to R) Lance Gardner, Anthony Fusco, Warren David Keith, and Stephanie Prentice in “The Christians.” Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli.
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Playwright Lucas Hnath is a notable talent who has generated excitement in the world of literary theatre as if he were a newly discovered planet, He is original, exciting, and will no doubt attract many admirers into his orbit. Hnath has a voice that will be heard loud and clear for some time to come.

His first play, “Death Tax,” made a splash at the Humana Festival of New Plays in 2012 and went on to a successful run at London’s Royal Court Theatre. Since then he has won enough awards to fill a small bookcase, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and a prestigious Whiting Award. He will be making his much anticipated Broadway debut later this year with “A Doll’s House Part 2,” a riff off of Ibsen, commissioned by South Coast Repertory, and directed by the great Sam Gold.

In short, you really should know about this guy and, thanks to San Francisco Playhouse, you have the chance to see an excellent example of his work with the West coast premiere of ‘The Christians.” It is a hellishly good play (that is, if you believe in Hell).

Pastor Paul (Anthony Fusco, in a typically outstanding performance), the founder and leader of a Christian mega-church, has his doubts about that last point. And when he challenges his followers to reconsider their assumptions about the devil and his fiery kingdom, all hell breaks loose in the congregation.

It is very unusual to find a play about Christians that avoids being patronizing or sentimental, but Hnath’s beautifully written script succeeds.

The issues raised are explored with intellectual depth, and psychological insight, in ways that may well challenge your preconceptions about fundamentalist religion.

Arguments that seem obvious are successfully challenged, and the players in the conflict surprise us with unexpected depths and twists.

“The Christians” is a very rare type of play: an intellectual exercise of genuine moral profundity, not merely sparkling but full of depth and shadow.

It isn’t perfect. The sermonizing and the didactic debates can be wearisome at moments, and having all of the characters speak into a hand held microphone as if officiating at a church service seems odd. Also, it stretches credulity that this church is a mega church with thousands of members; it seems far too homely for that.

Still, more than most plays, this one will provoke deep thought and interesting conversation, if you give it the attention it deserves.

Director Bill English has done exactly that. Notice, especially, the members of the Church choir. They sing beautifully, and none of them have any lines to speak. Nevertheless, each one is a distinct character, with distinct motivations and conflicts, and this comes across in the plays most dramatic scene — I promise you its a doozy, too, but I wont spoil it here.

As Pastor Paul’s associate pastor and antagonist, Lance Gardner is subtle and charismatic. Stephanie Prentice is better than fine as the Pastor’s musically gifted wife, who finds herself caught in the middle of the firestorm. Likewise for warren David Keith as a sympathetic Church Elder and Millie Brooks as a confused congregant.

“The Christians” is excellent work, and definitely deserves to be seen.

“The Christians” plays at SF Playhouse through March 11, 2017. For further information click here.

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Rating: ****
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here)
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“The Christians” by Lucas Heath. Produced by SF Playhouse. Director: Bill English. Music Directors: Tania Johnson, Mark Sumner. Scenic Designer: Bill English. Lighting Designer: Michael Oesch. Sound & Projection Designer: Theodore J. H. Husked. Costume Designer: Tatiana Jesse. Properties Designer: Jacquelyn Scott. Choir Conductors: Tania Johnson, Mark Sumner, BillGanz, Louis Lagalantes. Music Arrangers: Scott Anthony, Tania Johnson, Mark Sumner. Keyboard Arranger: Louis Lagalante. 

Cast:

Pastor: Anthony Fusca. wife: Stephanie Prentice. Associate: Lance Gardner. Elder: Warren David Keith. Congregant: Millie Brooks.

 

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