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Fire, brimstone and a battle of beliefs

Story By Carolyn Males  +  Photo By Jean-Marie Côté

We come to the theater to be transported to a different world. The curtain rises on a realm of magic or fantasy, a long ago moment in time, or maybe a slice of life different from or maybe at times similar to our own.

But in many ways entering the world of Lean Ensemble’s production of Lucas Hnath’s The Christians will be both familiar and disorienting. Yes, you’ll be in a theater with rows of seats, aisles, and playbills. But when the lights go down, you’ll find yourself in a house of worship –– a megachurch, in fact, with pulpit, full choir, and a pastor filled with the fiery righteousness of his faith.

We, the audience, become the congregation or perhaps the eavesdroppers here. The ritual, the prayers, the choral voices lifted in hymns wash over us establishing a familiar rhythm that lull us into a place of peace and security.

But what we’re about to experience is a tumultuous clash of beliefs –– a schism that will shake the very bedrock of this collective body. As the action unfolds, your mind can’t help but flash to a different arena, that of our own society where no matter what our religion, we noisily collide in debates over our own core beliefs about who we are as Americans.

Now as Pastor Paul stands before us, he celebrates the evolution of the church from a simple storefront twenty years ago to the grand building of today with its “baptismal font as big as a swimming pool,” its lobby coffee shop, bookstore, Sunday school, and sanctuary that can seat thousands of worshippers. “Today is the day the debt is paid,” he announces with delight. The church owns the building free and clear.

But before the rejoicing can begin, he drops a bombshell “There is a crack in the foundation of this church and I’m not talking about the building.” He’s had an awakening! He’s heard a missionary tell a story about a boy in a war-torn country who rushed into a bombed-out market shop to rescue his young sister. In pulling her from the flames, he dies from severe burns. In response, the missionary laments that the boy was not “saved” and so, despite his selfless heroics, he is condemned to Hell.

Troubled by the missionary’s pronouncement, the pastor tells of having a spirited conversation with God who shakes a verbal finger at him. “You think the Devil is a little man with horns,” God says. But Hell is humanity’s own creation. It’s how you all sit in judgment of others, treating them badly and condemning them for thinking differently.

So, Pastor Paul tells his flock of a radical change in dogma. “We are no longer a congregation that believes in Hell,” he proclaims. This simple declaration sets off repercussions as his popular associate pastor, his own wife, an elder, and congregants grapple with him and the implications of this new theological directive.

Audience, be warned. There are no simple answers or resolutions.

Despite its title, Director Jay Briggs offers that The Christians provides spiritual food for thought for a wide variety of people. “Any great work of art is looking at a universal question through a specific prism,” he points out. “On the surface the play is about a church schism that happens when expectations are subverted in that particular community. However, it’s more universal, dealing with the question of what happens when communities or families split over differences in thinking.” LL


The Christians

The Christians by Lucas Hnath features three actors new to the Lean stage: marcus d. harvey, Sean Hinckle, and Tai Verley along with Ensemble members Peggy Trecker White and Jenny Zmarzly. Continue the lively debate at talkbacks after each performance.

When: Evening performances at 7:30 p.m., Jan 23-25 and Jan 30-Feb 1. Matinees at 2 p.m., Jan 26 and Feb 2.

Where: HHPS Main Street Theatre, 3000 Main St., Hilton Head Island. Tickets: $40. Students and active military $15. Preview night Jan. 23, $25. Group rates available.

Tickets and information: 843-715-6676 or leanensemble.org