“A church is a place where people go to see something that is very difficult to see,” writes Lucas Hnath. “A place where the invisible is – at least for a moment – made visible. The theatre can be that too.” At the Steppenwolf production of Hnath’s play The Christians, we were in a theatre, but it felt like a Christian church. The two have been, if not separated, then in separate bedrooms, for quite some time; yes, there is Christian theatre, and there are plays with Christian characters, but even that distinction signals the estrangement, creating in both a negative space, populated with caricatures projected by assumptions.
Hnath’s play counters all of that from the moment it begins. At Steppenwolf it began five minutes before curtain, in a stage design masterfully indistinguishable from any American megachurch, with a full worship team. Some of the audience seemed a bit shifty. “Now this is subversive,” I said into my friend’s ear. The louder the worship became, the louder the people behind us talked. Admittedly, I was struggling to read a mixture of social cues from my understandings of theatrical and religious environments and the audience’s varying reactions. I can’t sing along, I thought, but I can clap. So I did. I can’t pray with the actor playing the Pastor, I thought, but I can smile when one of the worship team makes eye contact. So I did.
When the Humana Festival originally commissioned a play from Hnath, he studied the venue and its audience. Of his potential scripts he chose The Christians “because I’d come to learn that the festival has two very different audiences: the local Louisville audience and the theatre industry that comes in from out of town. And I had learned…getting to know subscribers, that a relatively high percentage of local attendees identified as Christian, while a comparatively high number of out-of-town attendees identified as ‘not’…[it was remarkable] how similar the reactions were. More or less, it seemed both ends of the audience in Louisville were on the same page. However…in NYC, the audience was very eager to hear the play as a satire. Most nights there were big laughs from the very start of the play.” It is difficult not to see this as a parable of how when we don’t love “the other” as our neighbor, they become our enemy. Even more difficult not to see is the “powerful urge to communicate” described by the Pastor as Hnath’s desire for the theatre to be a place where Christian ideas can live.
“‘There is only you and your fellow man,'” the pastor preaches in a sermon that follows the opening worship set, recounting words spoken to him by God. “‘You wanna see Satan – ? There’s your Satan. You wanna see Hell, you look around.’ And [God] said, ‘There is no Hell. And there is no reason to tell people that they’re going to Hell. Because they are in Hell. They are already there. You gotta take them out of the Hell they’re already in.'” If this reminds you of Rob Bell’s Love Wins, you are not alone, although after mentioning that book, we might be alone: it is a belief that divides groups of people like redlining, as they contend just what the blood of Jesus is saving us from.
Yet one of the triumphs of Steppenwolf’s production, and K. Todd Freeman’s sensitive direction, is the unity in diversity – hinted in the script, perhaps, through some shared language of church cultures – but embodied in the non-traditional casting.* And consequently, intractably, the church’s fracturing reaches the very bones of the play – Greek tragedy** – because it is disconnecting people who urgently need to be sharpened and purified, together, in the presence of God.
“I think what you did was actually incredibly selfish…” the Pastor’s wife remarks, toward the end of the play. “You haven’t thought about how what you’re doing affects other people.” Hnath has confessed he was supposed to be a preacher, but didn’t want to “worry about other peoples’ souls.” Then he was supposed to be a doctor, but didn’t want to “worry about other peoples’ bodies.” If he doesn’t still worry about both, the conversations of The Christians indicate he thinks deeply about them, and invite us to think deeply too – as an us.
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*Formerly “colorblind casting”, this replacement term inspires the question of what tradition, exactly, is worth honoring here.
**In an interview conducted by Young Jean Lee and featured in the Steppenwolf program, Hnath states “the bones of the play are Greek.” All of the quotes in this post are from that interview, except for the first, which is from Hnath’s preface of the Overlook Press publication of The Christians.