The spirit moved a full house to attend opening night of “The Christian”’ presented by Road Less Traveled Productions, ironically housed in the former Christian Center in downtown Buffalo. The audience is the congregation for this production, and the stage is the altar in a sleek, contemporary mega church, with a faux stained glass window as a video screening, lots of microphones, and plenty of conviction. It’s in this setting of a weekly worship service that playwright Lucas Hnath’s slow-simmering script posts the question “What if there is no Hell?”
. . .ends Road Less Traveled’s 14th season in a provocative way.
That earth-shattering message is delivered by ‘Pastor’ Dave Hayes who is perfectly slick as the spiritual leader of his stalwart congregation. His long and passionately delivered sermon is in four parts: Where Are We Now, A Powerful Urge, The Fires of Hell, and A Radical Change. It’s almost an academic construct: the first section reviews the church’s history and Pastor offers thanks as the church debt is now paid. In section two, he retells how he met his wife on an airplane when he passed her a note that says “I have a powerful urge to communicate with you but the distance between us is insurmountable.” All heck breaks loose in section three, where he unfolds the heart of his message: at a conference for pastors he heard a story of a young man who died saving his little sister’s life. He wasn’t Christian, but he was a selfless hero. Where’s his eternal reward? Or is he to be punished for his lack of belief? The debate begins in section four as the Pastor and Associate Pastor (in a riveting performance by Aaron Moss) fire Biblical quotes and heartfelt statements at each other in debate. This is the good stuff: the passion between leader and rising leader, the unspoken tension between the Pastor’s wife and the church elder. The heart-felt question from a congregant. Hayes and Moss are perfectly matched.
Hayes has all the vocal highs and lows of any televangelist. As a Pastor, he knows how to tend his flock: he praises their support, he smiles at his lovely wife, he points to the congregants with pride…and then he shakes their world. Moss is on fire: where Hayes is polished and maybe too comfortable as the spiritual, Moss is all passion and bravado. It’s elegant to watch. Lisa Vitrano is the Pastor’s wife, smartly dressed in a conservative suit with layers of sparkle, down to her gilt shoes, she doesn’t speak a word for most of the show, but her conflict is in every expression and gesture she makes. When she finally opens up, it’s a welcomed surprise. It’s a perfect moment when congregant Victoria Perez leaves her seat in the audience to speak to her Pastor. ‘Til now, Perez is the ideal congregant: loyal, trusting, believing. She accepts the church’s support to improve her quality of life, and she tithes more than her fair share, until she questions her beloved Pastor’s new philosophy. You hear the incredulity in her voice. Steve Jakiel is the solid church elder who wants what’s best for the greater good.
What would have sent this production over the top was even more music from the gifted music director Karen Saxon, an off-stage presence. How awesome it would have been to see some members of a church choir on stage swaying in their satiny robes with some live music, preaching through song.
The best theater is supposed to leave us with questions or at least thoughts that reflect our unique experience. “The Christians”certainly has that potential. It also ends Road Less Traveled’s 14th season in a provocative way.
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
‘The Christians’ is onstage until May 20, 2018. For more information, click here.