“The Christians” challenges belief systems and makes audiences better for it, so don’t miss your opportunity to experience this thought-provoking production before it closes.
It’ll be normal to walk into the theater and immediately check a watch to make sure you haven’t missed the beginning of the play. I’d recommend arriving early for a live gospel concert that will give you goosebumps. It’s jarring at first to see this gospel concert as it plays out on a stage that is reminiscent of the architecture of modern churches and mega-churches. While religion and faith are topics of many plays, it never hits you in the face so abruptly from the start like “The Christians.” While this may be off-putting to some at first, it is actually genius to start off with gospel music because no matter your religion all can appreciate a powerful voice. The musical performances by Faith Howard, Yando Lopez, Jazelle Morriss, Mary-Margaret Roberts, and Charlie Strater can almost make a believer out of anyone. The performances are so strong that when asked to raise your hands and sing a long it’s hard not to. You’re forgiven to forget that you’re at the theater and not part of the congregation. When the play starts and Pastor Paul, played with compassion and humor by Tom Irwin, asks you to bow your head and pray you might catch yourself obeying the command.
The special sermon comes on the church’s 10th anniversary after recently paying off the debt for the building. What started as a storefront church with a congregation of 20 people has grown to a mega-church with thousands of followers. On this day Pastor Paul declares that his church will no longer believe in hell and will no longer be a church that “believes my way is the only way.” Paul’s inspiration comes from the story of a boy who didn’t believe in Jesus who went into a fiery grocery store to save his sister and died. According to the Bible, while valiant and good, that boy went to hell because he didn’t believe in Jesus Christ being the savior. While reconciling this issue, God speaks to Paul and says that the boy is beside him in heaven, and the real hell is the hell that is created on Earth.
This naturally creates a schism in the church notably between Paul and associate pastor Joshua, portrayed with fervor by Glenn Davis. While debating in front of the congregation and spitting bible versus at each other in support of their arguments, Joshua comes to a point where he doesn’t know if he can continue to be part of the church, and Paul respectfully asks him to leave. Joshua ends up taking followers with him and a new church starts.
While a lot of the play is the debate of this issue that has been debated about for centuries—can an all-loving God exist if he subjects some of his people to eternal suffering—the actors do a great job of still making it feel like a play. In a debate both sides are entrenched in their stances and are trying to convince a third party of their position. However, “The Christians” doesn’t favor one position or another. While both Paul and Joshua are entrenched, there are still moments where either could be turned because they may speak to each other with a lot of passion, but they still have a lot of love for each other.
The Steppenwolf Theatre Company does a masterful job of always putting on productions that rarely try to answer questions but pose questions creatively to the audience. “The Christians” is just another great example of that. Can you be tolerant while requiring intolerance of the intolerant? How can you tell if God is speaking to you or if it’s just your wishful self speaking? How right are your beliefs if you lose those closest to you because of them? These are burdensome questions that would be arrogant for anyone to feel they have definitive answers, but it’s important to ask them. “The Christians” and Steppenwolf ask them well.
“The Christians” will close Jan. 29 at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted St. For tickets and more information visit steppenwolf.org/tickets–events/seasons/2016-17/the-christians.