Fiery, soul-stirring gospel choir enlivens lukewarm production
|Steppenwolf Theatre presents|
Review by Catey Sullivan
Lucas Hnath’s latest drama is packed with the sort of Big Provocative Questions that fuel all-night discussions among undergrads majoring in philosophy. As a debate, The Christians has merit. As a drama, it falls short. This 80-minute exegesis on the existence (or not) of an afterlife Hell has all the red meat provocations of a well-spoken entry in a forensics competition. But the piece is not a speech team exercise, it’s a mainstage production at the Steppenwolf. As such, it’s underwritten, unoriginal and lacking in dramatic momentum.
Not a magnificent choir and a stellar cast (peopled by actors who could make a recitation of the tax code intriguing) can fully mitigate the sins of shallow characters and a plot that’s more debate forum than story.
Directed by K. Todd Freeman, The Christians is set in a mega-church, complete with a towering, back-lit crucifix, enough ostentatious floral arrangements to fill a funeral parlor at rush hour, and a pair of massive video screens where video projections illustrate the words of Pastor Paul (Tom Irwin). There is also that full-throated gospel choir, a group that raises the proverbial rafters with a joyful noise backed by electric guitars and thumping percussion.
Hnath – with able assistance from set designer Walt Spangler – literally takes the audience to church. The stage has the generic, cavernous feel of a church where thousands worship at services as slickly produced as Broadway shows.
Initially, The Christians seems like a parody, with Hnath taking aim at the easy target that Evangelical churches with mega-million dollar budgets present. When the choir sings about burning for the Lord, those concert-sized video screens light up with images of the word “burning,” in flames. When Pastor Paul talks in soothing tones about Christ the Savior, a golden cross rises up amid amber waves of grain. When Pastor talks about the peace Christ brings his chosen children, generic images of mountain vistas, tranquil pools and sylvan forests abound, evoking those gawdawful inspirational posters misguided supervisors hang in employee breakrooms.
But Hnath hasn’t written a parody, and the uneven tone of The Christians switches abruptly once Pastor Paul really gets going with his sermon. The cleric has decided that there is no hell in the afterlife, and that in the end, everybody gets their heavenly reward. Hell, he tells his increasingly discomfited congregants, is on Earth. Predictably, this doesn’t sit well with a flock whose core doctrine avows that only those saved by Jesus can avoid an eternity in a fiery pit.
With Paster Paul’s sermon completed, The Christians offers a series of two-person scenes. Pastor Paul argues against Hell. His wife Elizabeth (Shannon Cochran), Associate Pastor Joshua (Glenn Davis), Elder Jay (Robert Breuler) and a congregant named Jenny (Jacqueline Williams) argue in favor of Hell. Nobody offers anything new or novel on either side of an argument that’s been ongoing since the dawn of humankind and will probably continue until the end of the world as we know it.
As he does in any discussion about hell, Hitler inevitably comes up. When pressed, Pastor Paul says Hitler will go to Heaven, which doesn’t sit at all well with congregant Jenny. “See, that’s hard to swallow. Can’t he go nowhere?” she says.
Also at issue is the timing of Pastor Paul’s sermon, which comes after the church has collected enough money to pay off its sizable mortgage. Why did Pastor Paul wait until after the flock had tithed enough to pay for the church’s gigantic building before preaching the absolute antithesis of the its foundational doctrine? Was he worried that the sermon would lead to an exodus and leave him in foreclosure? The question is never answered, and in the end, it doesn’t seem to matter much.
Hnath’s characters are flimsy, underwritten creatures. Having only one congregant in the cast seems like a budgetary decision rather than an artistic one. And when you’ve got actors with the formidable range and depth of Cochran and Williams, reducing them to a few talking points seems especially egregious. Cochran, in particular, doesn’t do anything but sit and listen to her on-stage husband for more than three quarters of the production.
Hnath’s use of microphones is also problematic. The mic seems appropriate when Pastor Paul is sermonizing. But why do he and his wife use mics when talking to each other in the intimate confines of their bedroom? Why do Pastor Paul and Elder Jay use mics during a conversation in the pastor’s office? The amplification and the mic-as-prop is an affected distraction.
Where the The Christians succeeds is in its extraordinary music. Under the music direction of Jaret Landon, the on-stage gospel choir will rock you to the core even if you’re a bone-atheist. Do. Not. Miss. Yando Lopez’ pre-service solo, a number that has an immense power that rolls out over the audience with the intensity of a gale-force typhoon. Ditto the roaring vocals of Jazelle Morriss and Faith Howard. If there is a heaven, vocal ensembles like the one in The Christians is performing nightly. If only The Christians provided a dramatic platform of similar power.
The Christians continues through January 29th at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map), with performances Tuesdays at 7:30pm, Wednesdays 2pm & 7:30pm, Thursdays-Fridays 7:30pm, Saturdays 3pm & 7:30pm, Sundays 3pm. Tickets are $20-$89, and are available by phone (312-335-1650) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at Steppenwolf.org. (Running time: 80 minutes, no intermission)
Photos by Michael Brosilow
Tom Irwin (Pastor Paul), Shannon Cochran (Elizabeth, the Pastor’s Wife), Robert Breuler (Elder Jay), Glenn Davis (Associate Pastor Joshua), Jacqueline Williams (Jenny, a congregant), Jaret Landon (musical director and keyboards), Leonard Maddox Jr. (drums), Charlie Strater (choir and guitar), Faith Howard, Yando Lopez, Jazelle Morriss, Mary-Margaret Roberts (choir), James Krag, Jeremy Sonkin, Eliza Stoughton (understudies).
behind the scenes
K. Todd Freeman (director), Joseph A. Burke (projection design), Walt Spangler (scenic design), NanCibula-Jenkins (costume design), Scott Zielinski (lighting design), Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen (sound design), Gigi Buffington (vocal coach), Malcolm Ewen (stage manager), Jaret London (musical director), Tom Pearl (director of production), Hallie Gordon (artistic producer), JC Clementz, Tam Dickson (casting), Cassie Calderone (asst. stage manager), Ben Burke (asst. director), Rachel Levy (asst. lighting design), Michael Shoaf (projection programmer), Lina Benich (stage manager apprentice), Joseph Burton, Stan Hicks, Bailey Jones, Kevin Lynch, Glenn Rogers, Mark Vinson (addition carpentry), Michael Dold, Bennett Seymour (additional properties), Lavina Jadhwani, Derek Matson, Leean Torske (artistic engagement associates), Michael Brosilow (photographer)