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THEATER REVIEW The Christians
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2016-12-20

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Playwright: Lucas Hnath. At: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St. Tickets: $20-$89. Runs through: Jan. 29

When a church leader undergoes a crisis of faith, the wise course is usually to take some time away from his duties in order to contemplate the source of his conflicts, and if, after a period of self-examination, he feels he can no longer fulfill his responsibilities to his congregation, he is well-advised to resign his office. Not Pastor Paul, though; when God speaks to him—telling him that Heaven is not a gated community, but a place of eternal welcome for all mortals, even non-Christians hitherto condemned to hellfire—he promptly informs his hundreds of followers that they are now to embrace his message of unconditional love.

Playwright Lucas Hnath has obviously read Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, and understands the irony of a right-minded man conceiving a right-minded plan, then going about announcing it completely wrongly. Our devout shepherd's error is not in seeking to banish the threat of punishment as an inducement to righteousness, but in failing to anticipate how this reversal of a restrictive doctrine will affect his flock. Thus, when his newly adopted beliefs are questioned by his bewildered associates, he is unprepared to answer their queries, instead allowing himself to be cornered into making statements patently absurd on their surface, intensifying the confusion arising from his perceived betrayal. As attendance at Sunday services dwindles, even his wife laments the possibility that "we may not be together forever" ( and when she says "forever," she's not just talking about this lifetime ).

Many theatergoers will have already struggled to reconcile the contradictions of religious exclusivity and arrived at a resolution, if only to surrender to Divine Mystery. Those of scholarly bent may detect in Hnath's parable the classical progress of a tragic hero's hubris leading to his downfall, while smug secularists proclaiming themselves above such theological wrangles may nevertheless find lessons in Paul's account of his trials applicable to leaders in other arenas.

Tom Irwin is Steppenwolf's current face of Clueless White Male Privilege ( Paul's assistant minister takes his superior to task for the latter's easy path to unquestioning acceptance of a gospel that others have sacrificed mightily to attain ) and knows by now not to rely on cheap stereotypes for audience sympathy. So do the stalwart band of dissenters portrayed by Glenn Davis, Shannon Cochran, Robert Brueler and Jacqueline Williams under the direction of K. Todd Freeman. However uncomfortable their arguments might make you—the excellent choir offers rest breaks over the 80-minute brain workout—you will leave with an appreciation of the role religion plays in our society today.


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