The Christians delivers thought-provoking theater

The play appeals no matter your faith

The Christians, the 2015 play by Lucas Hnath, opened at the Hoogland Center for the Arts March 24 and will be presented again this weekend. The play is suitable for all audiences and runs about 90 minutes with no intermission.

Performances are in the Peggy Ryder Theatre on the third floor of the Hoogland. It is an elegant and intimate performance space, with delicately painted coving and both floor-level and raised seating. This space is a gem and deserves to be experienced. Acoustics were outstanding.

The play takes place mostly in the sanctuary of a megachurch founded and still led after 22 years by Pastor Paul. God has told Pastor Paul that there is no hell, and he triumphantly tells the congregation what has been revealed to him. Paul does not get the approving reaction he expects. Other church leaders, including his wife and some of his congregation, push back against Paul's leadership for the first time in his ministry. During the rest of the play, people close to Paul argue with him about the importance of believing in hell. But the conflict between them runs deeper than differences in church doctrine and explores fundamental questions about communication and empathy.

Director Phil Funkenbusch does an outstanding job evoking the feel of a megachurch using a spare set. Spectators occupy the space of congregants, and the service starts with a rendition of "Keep the Candle Burning," confidently delivered by Diane Dietz and Tiffany Williams, who provide music throughout. The show's soundtrack is spot on with just the right mix of drum machine, Rhodes' piano and wandering bass that have been the mainstays of many health and wealth ministries' services for the past four decades or so. Their glistening eyes staring into the middle distance while singing "Here I Am to Worship" was so hypnotic and convincing that I would not have been surprised to see someone walk the aisle. Many audience members sang along with a lovely rendition of "It Is Well With My Soul."

Funkenbusch also extracted fine performances from his actors. The service felt so real that audience members clapped along with the two-member choir, and more than a few chins dropped reflexively when John D. Poling, playing Pastor Paul, said, "Let us pray." Poling delivers his sermon with perfect cadence and just the right amount of earnestness as he pronounces one mindless platitude after another ("When we look as one body, we see something we cannot see for ourselves" or "The one who lives in fear cannot love completely") and as he guilelessly describes a literal conversation with God.

Travis Wiggins as the associate pastor who stands up to his mentor has to handle the most range of any of the cast, and the young actor pulls it off. When he tells Pastor Paul, "I feel the Lord telling me to reject what you are saying," the student shows the master that he knows how to employ the same circular logic of insisting that people believe him because God told him so.

The only things that disappoint in this production are mostly the fault of Hnath. The Christians is one of his earlier works, and while it is clear that Hnath is intimately familiar with the type of church he portrays, the writing lacks the chutzpah that can be found in A Doll's House, Part Two. Hnath has Pastor Paul narrate some of the action, which felt unnecessary and distracting.

Hnath also doesn't make the best arguments for either side. For instance, Pastor Paul argues that hell exists here on earth rather than in some other world, and a just God would not throw the innocent – but unsaved – into fire and brimstone forever. But then, he essentially expels his fallen angel, Joshua, from the fold into the world that he's already called a hell. Not only is Paul unaware of the irony, but no one in leadership calls him out. It would be interesting to have Hnath rework the script to expound on the doctrinal controversy better.

Don Howard is an intern at Illinois Times while completing his master's degree in Public Affairs Reporting at University of Illinois Springfield.  He can be reached at or 336-455-6966.

About The Author

Don Howard

Don Howard is an intern with University of Illinois Springfield's Public Affairs Reporting master's degree program. He is a former lawyer and Spanish speaker who has lived in both Mexico and Spain, and most recently relocated to Illinois from Georgia.

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