Lucas Hnath's Play "The Christians"--"An Honest Play About Faith in America"
Springfield Contemporary Theatre at SCT Center Stage in Wilhoit Plaza presents "The Christians" by Lucas Hnath, directed by Terry Bloodworth, March 23-April 8. Bryant Turnage plays Pastor Paul, and Adie Williams portrays Paul's wife Elizabeth.
In researching the play, director Terry Bloodworth discovered playwright Lucas Hnath has numerous videos on YouTube in which 1) he provides the correct pronunciation of his last name ("NAYTH"); and 2) provides interesting information on his own backstory. "He's a fascinating guy," says Bloodworth. Hnath's mother is an ordained minister. Among other experiences, Hnath relates that, since they couldn't afford a babysitter, Hnath as a child often went with his mom to her seminary classes. These experiences have informed the writing of "The Christians," but in no particular way is it biographical or autobiographical. "He has said, in one of his interviews, that he wanted to write a play about his mother, to tell her story of struggle as a single mom. (But) as so often happens (in playwriting), other characters walked onto the page and took over the play. And, because he had this 'quasi-theological' background, that he'd always wanted to set a play inside a church. And he thought, what better place than a megachurch? He grew up in Orlando (FL), and he refers to the fact that everyone he knew was either a member of a megachurch--or worked at Disney World! So he talks about the 'performative' nature of the kind of life that he saw being lived around him, where your next door neighbor might literally be Goofy (the Disney character)... and that everyone was on-stage all the time."
In the play we learn that twenty years ago, Pastor Paul's church was nothing more than a modest storefront. Now he presides over a congregation of thousands, with classrooms for Sunday School, a coffee shop in the lobby, and a baptismal font the size of a swimming pool. Today should be a day of celebration: it's the tenth anniversary of the foundation of the large megachurch. They've paid off the debt--they're burning the mortgage. But Paul is about to preach a sermon that will throw everyone for a loop. "He makes an announcement that turns the congregation, and everyone's life there, upside down," says Terry Bloodworth. Adie Williams, who plays Pastor Paul's wife Elizabeth, calls Paul's pronouncement "a major shift in their core beliefs--his core beliefs--that he wants the entire church to adopt." "Yeah, he's turning this ship around," adds Bloodworth. And "because he truly and sincerely feels that God has told him to do this," he doesn't take into account "the repercussions to his own marriage, to his closest friendships, to his personal relationships"... and to his congregation, says Bloodworth. "As he says a couple of times in the script, 'They stayed, and they paid, and they prayed.' So everyone has a great deal invested."
Adie Williams says she has fielded questions from people who have asked, "Well, if I'm a Christian, will I like this play?" Her answer: "Anybody can like this play. Nobody is caricatured--all of the characters are so sincere, and you can sympathize with all of them. It's about relationships." "It's part of a journey," suggests Terry Bloodworth. "And one of the themes of the play is the desperate need for communication: Paul's catchphrase is 'I have a desperate need to reach out and communicate with you--but the distance between us is insurmountable.' And he feels that he has moved on, and other people haven't."
Lucas Hnath has a unique way of reminding the audience of the importance--and the difficulty--of communication: basically every character in the play, "for about 90% of the time," says Bloodworth, carries a microphone. Hnath even specifies how many should be wireless mics and how many mics should have cables. Adie Williams says she's never been asked to walk around with a hand mic in a play before. "It's very different. But it is on purpose." Terry Bloodworth believes the 86-seat intimacy of SCT Center Stage works perfectly with the concept of the play, even though much of the time the space is supposed to represent a huge church sanctuary that seats "untold thousands." He says that the microphones at first create a certain "incongruity, but in 30 seconds you become very used to those."
Bloodworth also makes special mention of the on-stage church choir that has been assembled by SCT Musical Director Alex Huff. They perform four hymns that Bloodworth says are "integral to the action of the play." (No hymnals are passed out to the audience, however!)
Despite the emotional/psychological complexity and high personal stakes portrayed in the play, Terry Bloodworth insists there is humor as well. "There's a lightness, and there's a believability to the relationships. So you never feel like this is a 'problem' play, or this is some sort of treatise or whatever. This is the story of five good people with very conflicting opinions. And there's a touching depth to the relationships. The marriage between Paul and Elizabeth is very, very close--until all of a sudden, it isn't."
Elizabeth's feeling of being blindsided by--and unprepared for--her husband's announcement/decision is the reason, says Adie Williams. She tries not to give away too many plot details. "Let's just say it would have been nice for him to bring her along a little bit more before making this decision." Adds Terry Bloodworth, "there's a feeling of betrayal from Elizabeth about not being informed, and it relates back to the 'why didn't you communicate this with me?'" "For (Elizabeth), it's an extra layer, explains Williams. "Not only does she have her own belief system that she's had her entire life, but now on top of that, she has the marriage relationship. In any relationship, if you feel someone has betrayed your trust, or whatever--so she has that layer. Plus, she's a pastor's wife, so she has a certain obligation and responsibility in the church. She is part of this. They're a team." "She's on display at all times," says Terry Bloodworth.
Performances of "The Christians" are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm starting March 23, and Sundays at 2:00pm through April 8. For ticket information call 831-8001 or visit www.springfieldcontemporarytheatre.org.