ALBANI. As the son of a priest, I found some personal echo in Lucas Hnath’s Christians (the preacher’s child himself). But you don’t need to be a religious figure to appreciate the issues raised here in the now well-done production of the new troupe, the Harbinger Theater.
Khnath places the audience in a mega-church congregation led by Pastor Paul (Dennis Skiba), the man who has led the church from a handful to over 1,500 members – and continues to grow. In today’s service, Pastor Paul announces that the debt for this modern building has been paid.
But he also has another announcement – a decision he came up with based on the moving, true story he tells us: This church will no longer believe in hell.
Thus begins a series of meetings between Pastor Paul and his assistant minister (David Quinones); Elder (Ken Clapp) parishioner, sister Jenny (Monet India Thompson); and his wife (Amy Hausknecht), conversations that turn into a deep and uncomfortable dialectic about the promise of heaven exclusively for good people and true believers in Jesus Christ.
At some point, Paul says, “I believe I’m doing what I’m doing because God told me,” to which Sister Jenny, on the other side, says, “Me too!” – a funny and frighteningly familiar moment. (Ask the Supreme Court how it weighs the arguments for and against abortion. Let’s think about our current state of politics or public education ideas.)
How does the congregation stay together? How can civil and pluralistic societies stay together? How do religious people reconcile competing messages when the stakes — heaven and hell — are so high?
And what is the role of any leader – to agree with the wishes of the followers or to encourage followers to think fresh?
If a play starts off slowly, interest in it grows. But I think we need to start — with a choir confidently singing hymns of faith (such as “Hold on to the unchanging hand of God”) as it happens on any other Sunday — to appreciate the tremendous shock that Pastor Paul’s statement is causing.
Founder and CEO Patrick White knows who to turn to for technical support to be successful. They are here. I especially liked the blue curtains, reminiscent of the sanctuary; organ music before the performance; as well as lighting, sound and projection (Kudos to Nick Nealon).
Music Director Ron Weber taught the choir to sing gospel numbers with enthusiasm and style. A nod to soloists Victoria Vine and Michael Murphy.
Clapp catches the nervous energy of a person delivering a poignant board of trustees message to Pastor Paul, whom he loves.
Thompson pours out passion and frustration touchingly, going from gratitude for the church’s support to discomfort at having to think about things she thought she knew.
In a touching performance, Hausknecht shows you how to stand next to your man and stand up for yourself. The interaction between Skiba and Hausknecht is heartbreaking.
As a spiritual and intellectual opponent of Paul, Quinones expresses the difficulty of disagreeing with this father figure. Initially, the employee is cocky and confident; he is subsequently broken and confused. A wonderful performance.
And Skiba is great in everything, not a showman-preacher, but a quiet man, a man who must ponder accusations of hypocrisy, because he wants to know his soul as much as he wants his parishioners to know theirs. His sparring with the others is adroit, with thoughtful pauses and quick replies. This is where White’s sensitive hearing comes in handy.
This scenario raises existential questions for us mortals and questions as members of our various social tribes. Answers? No. But Khnath makes us think and maybe talk, and that’s one of the reasons we go to the theater.
WHERE: Harbinger Theater in Albany Barn, 56th St Albany
WHEN: until December 11th.
HOW MUCH: 15 $
READ MORE: 351.201.5698
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Categories: Entertainment, Life and Art