(L to R) Pastor Paul (Evan Whitfield) and wife Elizabeth (Sunam Ellis) in 'The Christians'. Photo by DangerPants Photography.

In ‘The Christians’ and ‘Necessary Sacrifices’, Challenging Doctrine with Mixed Success

From Pony World and Taproot Theatre, two plays with little else in common set out to unpack traditional lore in religious belief and American history. They run through October 26.  

 

Pastor Paul has a noble new mission: lessen the fire and brimstone alignment of Evangelical Christianity, and stop equating “nonbelievers” with eternal damnation.

There’s just one problem: his congregation might not be ready to accept his burgeoning understanding that there’s no such thing as Hell. And they, along with his usual allies in church leadership, are prepared to be outspoken about it.

In The Christians by Lucas Hnath (Death Tax, A Doll’s House, Part 2), the action takes the form of a sermon, followed by very public exchanges — and some not so public — between a booming church’s lead pastor (played by Evan Whitfield), Associate Pastor Joshua (Fune Tautala), elder board (represented by Elder Jay, played by Mark Fullerton), and lay people and congregants (represented by two characters, played by Sunam Ellis and Pilar O’Connell, plus a church choir that rotates over the run). Pastor Paul’s worldview seems to inspire his new interpretation — which begins with pretty vanilla Evangelical Christianity but removes the Hell — and he backtracks through biblical text, and Greek and Hebrew interpretation, to support it. His change of conviction comes from a personal tale, involving a selfless child being proclaimed Hellbound because he hadn’t heard the “good news.” Convinced that can’t be right, the experience opens the door to doubt — a doubt he shares in a surprise message to the congregation, which doesn’t quite know how to respond.

The positions represented in the play sketch out a decent enough outline of some divergent views in Christianity. The script doesn’t go deep on any of “the issues,” but at least gives a bit of the flavor of debates around doctrine and interpretation that anyone who’s spent much time in a Christian church is well acquainted with. (I’m one of such people and got an early start, attending preschool and kindergarten in the very same church building that held the opening weekend performances.) Things get a bit convoluted, though, when it tries to go deep into interpretation and history in a rat-a-tat exchange of Bible verses between pastors Paul and Joshua. The textual debate is at times so nuanced, and the translation and historical debates so arcane, that it’s impossible to get enough real meat out of it as they fling references at each other; and that, in turn, makes it hard to get invested in either side contemporaneously, based on their arguments.

And so, rather than text or reason, much of taking sides in this staged debate comes down to the characters. Unfortunately, Pastor Paul — the bearer of good news — doesn’t really stand a chance.

It’s not so much that the lead pastor is a bad or unbelievable character (although he lacks conviction of delivery that inspiring leaders tend to have); nor that his primary foe, Associate Pastor Joshua, is a formidable one (although he does seem naturally to have more conviction and earnestness in his delivery). Instead, it’s that they both pale alongside two supporting actors — Ellis (as Paul’s wife, Elizabeth) and O’Connell (as congregant Jenny) — who deliver the lion’s share of conviction in the play.

Their roles are more nuanced than the two adversaries, but more impactful. As Paul’s wife, Elizabeth (played by Ellis) has been supporting him in his “good work” for so long that he’s come to expect her there by his side no matter what. The concept that she would have her own beliefs — or even want some heads up that her husband is about to deliver a shakeup — seems not to register with him. Their dynamic is a familiar traditional one, reminiscent of the concept of a “help mate” — a view in which, essentially, men lead and women support them in their ventures. Elizabeth is dutiful, but she finally begins to bristle — and that slow, savvy march toward incredulous is one that Ellis plays brilliantly. Watching her is equal parts to empathize with her character and to marvel at her comedic timing, even in a role where the comedy’s not obvious; and the more I see of Ellis (Gregory-nominated in this season’s Sheathed; Gregory-winning in last season’s Hand to God), the more I’m convinced she’s a theatrical treasure, no matter the role. This is no exception.

The role of congregant Jenny is a much different one, and a character more bold and hardscrabble, which O’Connell plays up. She’s been dealing with her boyfriend’s doubts about the pastor’s intentions, and comes to have a few of her own, too. O’Connell plays with such conviction, it’s easy to find yourself wanting the answers to the questions she’s asking — everything from the rightness of the doctrine to the reason for the timing — along with her.

A large part of the novelty of this production is that Pony World has brought it out into actual churches in order to perform it. But as to actually representing the world of the play, I’m not sure it succeeds as intended. In going so literal, the building chosen really has to match the play’s world, and this one (a large but cozy traditional-feeling Lutheran church) gets a little clashy with the type described in the play (which sounds like a modern, large, younger church, bordering on a mega church). The formal, besuited looks of the pastors don’t seem right, either, for church leadership informally addressed by their first names. To me, the literalism of the set alongside that disconnect thus felt more distracting than immersive. The staging was also an odd one, chiefly because of its clumsy use of corded microphones, which the actors are dragging around all over a large building and the stage. (For her part, Ellis does manage to turn the awkward mics into a comedic and dramatic feature, rather than a clunky prop.)

But Pony World’s version of this show, directed by Leah Adcock-Starr, also had a very curious effect — one that’d be hard to anticipate from the script or even during the performance itself. Whether intentional in the direction or stemming from Ellis and O’Connell’s outstanding performances, or some combination thereof, the viewpoints that stuck with me most are those that are least often provided a stage and a microphone: the wife expected to “go along with it” when her husband makes a decision; the congregants expected simply to stay or to go when their religious leader issues an edict from the pulpit.

I didn’t leave thinking about the pastors, or whether there’s a Hell, or any other dogmatic brawl. I left thinking about what those structures of power and function do to the rest of the church — namely, those who thirst for truth but have little say in what “truth” is. And that alone — along with stellar performances from Ellis and O’Connell, and the unusual nature of the play’s concepts and staging — provides good reason to go see what you take away from the debate in The Christians.

 

While Pastor Paul leads his congregation into their own small-scale civil war in The Christians, at Taproot Theatre Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln debate the underpinnings of the country’s Civil War in Necessary Sacrifices (by Richard Hellesen, directed by Karen Lund). Here, too, lopsided characters weighed on the drama of the debates, but here much more detrimentally.

(L to R) Frederick Douglass (Lamar Legend) and Abraham Lincoln (Ted Rooney) in ‘Necessary Sacrifices’ at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.

The question of how much to accept in the face of that “peculiar institution” known as slavery is the primary debate in which Douglass and Lincoln are engaged in Necessary Sacrifices. (The title refers primarily to “collateral damages” of wartime, but more broadly to the country’s acceptance of its moral failings as well.)

The basic premise of the play is that Douglass (played by Lamar Legend) meets with Lincoln (Ted Rooney) and takes him to task for not being as anti-slavery as he should be. Instead, Lincoln is portrayed as putting a unified country above all else, chiefly abolition. After taking us through a series of politically convenient capitulations and meaningless private remarks for abolition, with a war already underway, Lincoln eventually realizes it would be wise to pay Douglass mind and to target slavery’s stronghold.

Legend as Douglass is exceptional, portraying a younger version than is often shown, and giving him a personality that’s self-assured, vibrant, a fighter in wisdom rather than merely a philosopher of it.

Lincoln, meanwhile, feels as though he’s imagined as someone’s folksy uncle — slow, agreeable, not likely to take a hard and principled stand on much of anything. His portrayal comes across less as deliberative, more as something of a pushover, willing to bend whichever way the wind blows him strongest; as well as something of an underhanded trickster in certain of his dealings with Douglass, while trying to come across as an ally to the cause. And abolitionist George Stearns (played by Andrew Litzky) seems like a role designed merely to temper Douglass’ passion in his few appearances.

In the modern U.S., where our Constitution is revered above all else by a great many people who haven’t read it, alongside experts and legal scholars who debate whether they would sign the original Constitution today and ultimately assent, despite the “victims of the American Constitution — including but not limited to slaves” (read Sanford Levinson’s law review article on the topic here), it’s good to be reminded of what exactly that original document accepted and enshrined. The Constitution protected three decades of international slave trade; indefinitely protected the dominion of wealthy, violent White households over slaves as their property and not persons; and, as the icing on the cake, gave those slaveholders representation in government for that “property” while giving slaves no political say of their own.

All of those things are very good things to be reminded of when evaluating America’s moral standing. And thematically, Necessary Sacrifices does trigger a twinge of that remembrance. Substance-wise, however, it doesn’t go terribly deep into historical revelations. It’s hard to tell, in fact, what it’s after.

Had Lincoln’s character grappled with the issues in a solemn, engaged way, this could have been a different play. In this interpretation, it was too easily a one-sided debate. Thankfully, the clear winner is the abolition side, as it should be. I’m just not sure that makes for an interesting or thought-provoking play.

Legend’s sharp, engaging Douglass makes for a strong character on stage, and a new interpretation of a great historical figure. But he needs a better sparring partner than this production was willing to give him.


The Christians runs through 10/26 at neighborhood churches. Tickets $20, available here. Due to rotating and non-traditional venues, please contact theatre for accessibility info. Necessary Sacrifices runs through 10/26 at Taproot Theatre in Greenwood. Tickets up to $50, available here. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gendered and multi-stall. First-level theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible (balcony level is not). For showtimes, visit Calendar page.

Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.