Theatre Review: ‘The Christians’ at Road Less Traveled Theatre

The cast of “The Christians” at Road Less Traveled Theatre.

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. 

First Look: ‘The Christians’ at Road Less Traveled Theatre

Church scandals always make headlines. But imagine what would happen if a clergy member proclaimed that there is no hell. Does that lead to other shocking declamations against  the Judeo-Christian belief system? What happens to the church community’s inner balance? Our reward system? Our nightly prayers? Or our favorite punitive, dismissive comment? Somehow “Oh, go to…..nowhere in particular” doesn’t exactly pack a verbal punch.

The absence of Hell – the place and the metaphor – is the basis for ‘The Christians,’ the upcoming show for Road Less Traveled Productions. Director Scott Behrend was attracted to the play because it takes a neutral stance on an inflammatory topic. “This is the second of (playwright) Lucas Hnath’s plays that we produced,” Behrend says. “His work tends to look at both sides of any issue in a pretty balanced way. I think it’s important that theater looks at all our dilemmas including our questions about faith. ‘The Christians’ takes an important look at how and why we choose to believe what we believe.”

Not one to shy away from complex or controversial topics, Behrend say, “RLTP has become known for provocative theater that engages the audience emotionally and intellectually. I think ‘The Christians’ is a great example of this.”

Preparing for a production like this –  that is sure to ignite passions and raise eyebrows –  is a complex and multilayered process. Dramaturg Katie Mallinson and the cast researched different perspectives. The cast also discussed their own faiths, an irony of sorts since RLTP’s home for the past few seasons is the former Christian Center, and a place where faith was probably oft discussed in probably very different ways.

The audience is also invited to engage beyond the performance, too. To help foster more in depth discussion behind the scripts, their words, meanings, and nuances is RLTP’s off-stage discussion series called OFF-BOOK.  These 30-minute discussions are moderated by local writer/actor Michelle Holden and are held in the lobby bar. With seating limited to 25 guests, this intimate ‘script club’ (guests are invited to read the script before attending, although it’s not mandatory, just like a bookclub) is a fascinating salon for 21st century theatre-based conversation. Behrend says OFF-BOOK’s discussion about the previous production ‘Disgraced’ (also a faith-based production) was a big hit. There’s no additional charge to attend but registration is required and the cash bar will be open. ‘The Christians’ OFF-BOOK night is May 16: to register, click here.

If OFF-BOOK is a form of participation theatre, ‘The Christians’ actual production is one Hallelujah away from a holy day of obligation. The production is set as a service in a mega-church, during the sermon, complete with a 12-person choir on stage that’s integral to the production. Acclaimed singer and music teacher Karen Saxon is the music director. Saxon was immediately drawn to production. “I read the script and loved the story,” she says. “I also latched on to the opportunity to include the music I grew up singing.”

The mega-church sermon setting with the audience as the congregants makes this a unique piece of theatre, according to Behrend. “The structure combined with the ideas and storytelling makes it a very theatrical but also very familiar evening. I think it has a central core dilemma that will keep our audience thinking about it for a long time after the production.”

Amen.

“The Christians,” a WNY premiere, runs April 27 to May 20. For more information, click here.

Promotional Consideration Paid For By The Theatre Alliance of Buffalo.