Theater Review

Dallas Theater Center's religious debate is spirited, but not quite blessed

Dallas Theater Center's religious debate is spirited, but not blessed

Dallas Theater Center presents The Christians
Chamblee Ferguson as Pastor Paul. Photo by Karen Almond

You don't have to be a believer to appreciate the theological back-and-forth of The Christians, but a religious background might be key to enhancing your enjoyment of it.

Dallas Theater Center has turned the Kalita Humphreys Theater into a megachurch for Lucas Hnath's 90-minute play, complete with a 30-person choir and the audience serving as congregation. A good chunk of the action is Pastor Paul (Chamblee Ferguson) delivering sermons as he strolls the stage, microphone in hand, with Yi Zhao's lighting illuminating the crowd so he can look us in the eye as he unpacks his controversial theory about the existence of Hell.

That's the jumping-off point: Does Hell even exist? Pastor Paul says no, but his associate pastor argues that of course it does, the Bible says so, what a ridiculous question. Clad in a sweater and khakis, Steven Michael Walters is the young and hip Joshua, unafraid to challenge Paul before their thousands of congregants. His brash speech gets him fired on the spot, and we're told that a handful of worshippers choose to leave with him.

A quirk of Hnath's script is the presentational way in which his characters narrate their actions. It makes sense for moments like Joshua's departure, where instead of Walters climbing the aisle alone we can envision 50 spiritually shaken people following him. It's less effective when Paul is summoned to a meeting with one of the church's Elders (Tyrees Allen), and the men say they're shaking hands instead of ... just doing it.

The Board of Elders is initially in favor of Paul's bold new direction for the church — until attendance starts dropping. When people stop coming to church, so does their money, and the expansive building where the chapel, classrooms, coffee and gift shops, and "a baptismal font the size of a swimming pool" reside was only recently paid off (Bob Lavallee's design is tastefully rich). It's curious timing for Paul's revelatory sermon, and soon everyone from his wife (the regal Christiana Clark) to a timid congregant (SMU student Lindsay Ryan) is pointing that out.

Ulterior financial motives provide one kind of dramatic tension, but the battle for souls is what really gets these characters fired up. Who will get to spend eternity in Heaven? Who's going to Hell? Wait, if there isn't a Hell, does that mean everyone from Hitler to Gandhi is hanging out together in the afterlife? And why should we even practice religion if we're all ending up in the same place anyway?

This is where Hnath tries to dig into spiritual rhetoric, and director Joel Ferrell does an admirable job of keeping his characters balanced. It's also where an observer's familiarity with and belief in organized religion might deepen the drama. Without that, it's an interesting yet bloodless debate.

Ferguson makes it wonderfully hard to tell if Paul's break from traditional religious teaching was calculated or if God just had really tacky timing in delivering his message. What's never in question, though, is the love he has for his wife, and his complete and utter desperation to stay with her despite their now-differing beliefs. And though her scene is short, Clark is the epitome of strength. Walters, like Ferguson, is endlessly flexible as his character flips from religious zealot to clear-eyed pragmatist.

The Christians was one of the most-produced plays of 2016 and, unofficially, seems to be on track for that same list in 2017. But despite its popularity, it all comes down to what spiritual baggage you bring to the theater.

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Dallas Theater Center's The Christians plays at the Kalita Humphreys Theater through February 19.