One of the things I like about Citadel Theatre is how they balance their seasons. The company puts on its fair share of guaranteed moneymakers, but they temper them with lesser known selections as well. Under the watchful eye of artistic director Scott Phelps, the theatre understands that to do more unconventional or experimental works requires first stuffing the coffers with traditional fare.
Now playing through March 12 at Citadel’s comfortable Lake Forest home, The Christians is an Obie Award winning drama with a focus on making the audience think.
In college, one of my favorite courses was entitled “Moral Decisions.” In that class, the instructor would outline different hypothetical situations of varying complexities and ask the students to come to a personal decision about those issues.
Then, however, the instructor would change the scenario – add one more factor to those being considered. And, even though it might be a small change in circumstance, it could often be enough to throw your previous opinion into flux. In short, the class made you think.
Written by Lucas Hnath, The Christians debuted at Actor’s Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival in 2014. Like the college class that I remember so fondly, Hnath’s play also focuses on making you think. In particular, the audience is asked to look inside themselves and decide what is important about religion and the differences between belief and behavior.
Since its debut less than a decade ago, The Christians has grown in popularity and notoriety. It has been produced at such powerhouses as Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company and Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum. Yet, it is still not a widely known play. So, Citadel should be applauded for introducing it to its audience base.
The play focuses on Paul, the pastor of a megachurch and his decision to share not a change in religious philosophy, but rather a belief he has long held and quietly hidden. Ever since he was a young pastor, just learning the craft of saving souls and running a small storefront church, he has wrestled with the notion that only Christians go to heaven.
For example, Paul cites during the course of the play, what about a child who sacrifices his life to save another? Will such a noble and loving person burn in hell for all eternity because they weren’t a Christian?
Instead, Paul envisions a theology in which all souls go to heaven – where all souls are forgiven. And while this seems a just principle on the surface, it is interesting to discover that some find solace in the belief that only they are the chosen.
JUST LIKE TV
Under the skillful direction of Scott Westerman, Citadel Theatre’s intimate performance space is transformed into a very believable megachurch facsimile. This is due in large part to the company’s investment in state of the art digital video monitors provided by Pangea Technology. It is the same technology used to make American Idol and The Voice ratings sensations on television.
Indeed, production managers Scott and Ellen Phelps, scenic designer Jonathan Berg-Einhorn, master carpenter Jason Clark, cinematographer Ian Merritt, and scenic charge artist Diana Dick have done a grand job creating the set for this tantalizing staging.
Always a solid performer, Scott Phelps plays the charismatic pastor. Phelps has the seasoned leading man looks that have made many a television pastor rich. Yet he chooses to gift his character a very subdued and quiet demeanor, instead of the passion and energy one typically associates with leaders of megachurches.
But that is the point that Phelps conveys so well. Pastor Paul is not your typical preacher. He doesn’t believe the same things that the average Christian preacher does. So, perhaps, his preaching style must be different as well.
PROFITS VS PROPHETS
Pastor Paul decides to unveil his new theology that ‘everyone goes to heaven’ on the day that the church pays off all its debts. And, he does so with no warning to his wife, his associate pastors, or any of the church elders who help govern the institution.
This raises an interesting question. If Pastor Paul has always felt this way, why did he wait to announce it until after getting all the donations from believers in the traditional interpretation of the Bible?
While this play succeeds or fails on the performance of the actor playing Pastor Paul, the small group of supporting characters are equally as important and compelling.
Ellen Phelps has proven to consistently turn in quality performances and does so again as the pastor’s wife Elizabeth. She is calm and collected but hiding deep and troubled feelings inside. She grapples with the conflict of her love for her husband and her conviction in beliefs that are counter to his.
Frank Nall is very solid as Jay, one of the church elders. Like Elizabeth, Jay is torn between his allegiance to the church and his allegiance to his friend who runs it. Likewise Manny Sevilla is a very down-to-earth, man-of-the-people in his interpretation of the character of Joshua, the associate pastor.
Abby Chafe shows the most emotional turmoil as Jenny, one of the congregants of the church who also serves as the camera crew and Jill of all trades for Pastor Paul’s television sermons. Jenny lives on food stamps and donated clothing, but still gives 20% of her income to the church because it is that important to her. But like many, she really battles with the beliefs that Pastor Paul says the congregation will now focus on.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Thinking is a good thing. Putting your own beliefs under the microscope from time to time is an important thing to do.
There are those who vote for candidates from a political party because that’s what their family has always done, not realizing that the party had changed and the candidates they are voting for don’t hold any of the same values that once brought the family to align with that party in the first place.
That’s why self-analysis is important. And, that’s the kind of thinking that Tony-nominated playwright Lucas Hnath invites you to explore with The Christians. In this case, the backdrop is religion, but it could easily be about politics or any other myriad of topics where it’s wise to question one’s own beliefs.
The Christians plays Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 PM and Sundays at 3 PM. There are special Wednesday performances at 7:30 PM on March 1 and 1 PM on March 8. For tickets call (847) 735-8554 ext. 1, visit www.CitadelTheatre.org, or emails email@example.com.
Citadel Theatre is located inside the West Campus of Lake Forest High School, 300 S. Waukegan Road, Lake Forest, IL 60045. There is ample free parking, and the seating is very comfortable with plenty of legroom.
Peace. Love. Trust.
Rikki Lee Travolta
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Having reviewed Tge Christians in 2016 at Steppenwolf, I was very excited to read your review. As per usual, it was excellent and thoughtful.