The West End Players Guild’s current show is at the usual address, but not in the usual place.
The company’s home of over 40 years is the Union Avenue Christian Church. Until now, West End has performed in the basement social hall, which has a stage. For Lucas Hnath’s compelling play, The Christians, the Guild has moved up to the church’s sanctuary.
The move makes perfect sense. The setting of The Christians is a church. “The whole play is a kind of sermon,” Hnath comments in a prefatory note. The play is a gripping study of a doctrinal dispute that tears a congregation apart. The West End production is superb.
The play begins with Pastor Paul’s sermon to mark a milestone in the life of a 3000-member megachurch. After 10 years, it has finally paid off the debt incurred when the church built the facilities needed to accommodate its burgeoning membership.
Pastor Paul chooses this occasion to introduce “a radical change” for his congregation. He recounts a story he heard from a missionary about a badly burned boy who died after rescuing his sister from a fire. The tragedy to the missionary is not that the heroic boy died but that he went to Hell because he died before he could be converted.
Wrestling with this story brings Pastor Paul to a turning point. He can no longer accept the idea that belief is requirement for salvation. “We are no longer a congregation that believes in Hell,” he asserts. “We are no longer a congregation that says my way is the only way.”
The church’s associate pastor, Joshua, immediately pushes back against the change because it contradicts the fundamental tenets of his faith. A vote is taken after Paul and Joshua clash over the issues. Only a small percentage of the congregation sides with Joshua, but this affirmation of the change is far from the end of the story.
The play is remarkable for its evenhandedness. The Christians is moving and thought provoking because Hnath portrays every person positively and makes a strong case for every position. There are no villains and no straw arguments.
Under Ellie Schwetye’s sensitive direction, the West End actors interpret their parts brilliantly. Joel Moses’ Pastor Paul is a stirring preacher whose charisma fades as resistance to his message grows. Joseph Garner captures the struggle within Joshua as his belief in church doctrine drives a wedge between him and his mentor.
Michael Byrd’s portrayal of church elder Jay evinces the dilemma of someone who must look out for the church’s best interests. Jay wants to support Paul but believes the church cannot afford a schism, and not just for financial reasons. In Chrissie Watkins’ performance, church member Jenny argues with great power when she shares the misgivings she and others have with the content and the timing of Paul’s message.
Paul’s wife, Elizabeth, is the person most distressed by his radical change. It alienates her from her partner as well as her pastor. Rachel Hanks conveys the depth of Elizabeth’s sorrow as the doctrinal conflict forces her to rethink the underpinnings of her most intimate relationship.
The beauty of the Union Avenue sanctuary enhances the production, as do Catherine Adams’ lighting and Ellie Schwetye’s sound and projections.
The Christians continues at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday through December 11 at the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union Boulevard.
Photo by John Lamb
From the left: Rachel Hanks as Elizabeth, Joel Moses as Pastor Paul, Joseph Garner as Pastor Joshua, Michael Byrd as Elder Jay, and Chrissie Watkins as Jenny in The Christians.