“There is no hell. And there is no reason to tell people they’re going to hell. Because they are in hell. They are already there.”
Pastor Paul (Townsend Coleman) delivers this epiphany to his thriving mega-church congregation after sharing a harrowing story told by a missionary who witnessed a boy of a different faith run into a burning building to save his sister. The boy successfully saved her from the flames but was badly burned himself and died shortly thereafter. The missionary recounting the story lamented the failure to convert him and the loss of his soul. Soon after hearing the missionary’s story, the non-existence of hell, the fact that we’re already living in it, dawns on the pastor, a revelation which leads him to this moment before his congregants in the provocative, absorbing play, “The Christians,” now running at the Crossley Theatre.
Anyone raised in a religious home, as Obie Award-winning playwright Lucas Hnath was, might have to pick their jaw off the ground and secure their tickets to the Actors Co-op production right now. Heck, anyone who has any interest in Christianity, the church, religion or shuns the institution of religion entirely should stop what they are doing and seek out this play.
This is the beauty and genius of this show: It’s for believers and non-believers alike. It’s quite simply a fascinating evening of theatre. If you missed it at the Taper a few years back, you have a few more weeks to not make that mistake again.
The rest of the show follows the almost instant schism within the congregation. The first and immediate challenge to the pastor’s iconoclastic declaration comes from the associate pastor Joshua (Thomas Chavira) and leads a small number of congregants to walk out of the service. But that’s just the beginning. In the following weeks, there are discussions with the head elder (Phil Crowley), a testimony from a choir member (Nicole Gabrielle Scipione) and even from Pastor Paul’s own wife (Kay Bess), events which fracture any sense of unity within the parish and upend the pastor’s life.
Director Thomas James O’Leary knew the play would be controversial for the Actors Co-op, yet he and the company dove headfirst at the chance to take it on. It’s a mostly tight 100-minute show (no intermission) that I thought would have been perfection at 90 minutes, but this is a minor quibble. The cast is a talented ensemble without a weak link: everyone delivers sincere, passionate performances. But we can’t understate the power of the play itself. When a director and a group of actors are handed intelligent and intriguing material such as this, it makes the job of bringing it to life that much easier.
What a fortuitous combination of a talented cast and a thought-provoking gem of a play. Both the play and those responsible for staging it are first-rate and deserve the attention of the city’s theater-going community.
Actors Co-op – Crossley Theatre
1760 N. Gower St. Hollywood
Fri.-Sat. 8 pm, Sun. 2:30 pm through Jun. 16th
Running time: 100 minutes, no intermission.