MOUNT DESERT — Going to the Acadia Repertory Theatre in Somesville last Wednesday night was very much like attending church on a Sunday.
Lucas Hnath’s “The Christians” opens with a gospel song sung with fervor by a convincing choir.
The music stops, and a tall, handsome, young minister comes to the pulpit, backlit by a large, electric blue cross.
Before getting into the crux of his sermon, Pastor Paul (Dustin Whitehead) gives us, his congregation, a little history of the church, which apparently is one of those evangelical megachurches. He grew it from a modest storefront to its current magnificence, with thousands of seats, a pool-size baptismal font, a coffee shop in the foyer and, well, you get the picture.
We have come on a day of celebration; today the new church has paid off the last of its loans and – hallelujah! – is praising the Lord in the black.
This marriage of humble prayer with material pride, that good ol’ “praise the Lord and pass the hat” sensibility, is all very familiar to anyone who has ever caught an evangelical super-service on TV.
But then something unexpected happens. In the midst of his sermon, Pastor Paul posits the idea that hell doesn’t exist. He preaches that the kind and loving God he worships would not condemn non-Christians to the torments of hell even if they haven’t lived exemplary, even heroic lives.
Behind him, the smiles on the faces of his choir members, church officials and even his pretty, blond wife (Ali Fitzpatrick) fade. Most distressed of all is Associate Pastor Joshua (Andy Schnabel), who confronts his popular superior at the pulpit and challenges this new interpretation of scripture.
What follows is a fight for the soul of this shiny, new church and its congregants, who, it turns out, are not as open to shiny new ideas as Pastor Paul had hoped. Even his wife has trouble reconciling the traditions of her faith with her husband’s repudiation of not only Hell, but its landlord, Satan.
It’s an intriguing premise, and the playwright and this Acadia Rep cast manage to present its arguments without making anyone look wrongheaded, foolish or stereotyped. No Elmer Gantry here spouting parables and brimstone while stuffing his pockets with collection plate cash. All the arguments, pro and con, are presented with sincerity and restraint. The distressed young mother (a convincing Mary Paola) can’t imagine her son and Adolph Hitler one day meeting in heaven. Church board member (an officious Frank Bachman) supports Pastor Paul’s ideas but knows the church can’t financially afford a schism.
This thoughtful and measured treatment is, oddly, both the strength and the weakness of “The Christians.”
As Pastor Paul, Whitehead seems so reasonable, so underplayed and dispassionate that it is hard to imagine how this rather ordinary Joe managed to gather such an enormous flock in the first place.
Schnabel’s Pastor Joshua has a bit more fire in his belly, but he is careful not to make him cartoonish or spoofish, he really doesn’t much resemble the genuine article of a fundamentalist foe of Satan. And those of us who recall Tami Faye Bakker’s mascara-stained tears when her husband Jimmy fell from grace won’t find her in Fitzpatrick’s sweet and troubled portrayal of Pastor Paul’s wife.
So while “The Christians” succeeds as a thoughtful exploration of theological principle without any fire and brimstone, it is less compelling on a dramatic level. Hnath makes his points swiftly, without excess, and then lets us go to ponder them on the ride home, like a good sermon, really.
The production values, usually of high standard at Acadia Rep, have a few issues here. The microphone volume is so low one wonders if they are nonworking props. The words often don’t reach the back of the little Somesville theater.
Also, the organ music piped from the back of the theater often drowns out the choir and its soloists.
While Director Andrew Mayer’s big electric cross is impressive, the rest of the minimalist set is a bit frumpy, not at all like the modern glass and steel affairs that have replaced the old revival tents of the past. Small stuff, and one understands budget restraints, but as the say, “the devil is in the details.”
“The Christians” will be performed through July 23.
Call 244-7260 or visit www.acadiarep.com.