Arts & Theater

‘The Christians’ explores the power of faith to divide individuals

Kurt Johnson, left, Margaret Kemp and Darian Dauchan in Lucas Hnath’s “The Christians” at B Street Theatre
Kurt Johnson, left, Margaret Kemp and Darian Dauchan in Lucas Hnath’s “The Christians” at B Street Theatre Rudy Meyers Photography

We can argue just about anything except faith. Actually we can argue faith too, but how far can we go when someone believes something based not on facts but on their feelings? That’s where Lucas Hnath’s absorbing new play “The Christians” begins and ends. Hnath boldly places a knotty faith-based argument in a successful church congregation where opposing sides are taken and surprising reactions occur.

Kurt Johnson has never been more masterful than he is as Pastor Paul, the head of the large unnamed contemporary church he embroils in crisis. But the crisis isn’t Paul’s – it’s because of his conclusion about certain aspects of the Bible’s teaching. When he announces his ideas in a sermon, he faces immediate push-back (I won’t divulge his epiphany because that would undermine the play’s mystery and narrative development).

The arguments fascinate, and the characters are compelling as they wrestle with their own conceptions of what words in the Bible actually mean. While director Dave Pierini takes full advantage of designer Samantha Reno’s smart church set, there were some pacing issues with the story, which is often simply a debate.

The play opens as if we are at a service of the church, with a choir singing a hymn – vocalist Courtney Kendall provides a stirring lead. Then the church leaders enter one by one, taking their places on the dais, and finally Pastor Paul enters clutching his Bible.

In his sermon, Paul gives a history of the church, particularly its growth. He notes that finally all the financial debts for the physical growth of the church have been paid, which becomes a significant plot element later in the narrative. Then Paul, as pastors will, tells a story that changes everything.

Not everybody is on board with the change – either in the church leadership or in the congregation. Paul has to justify his new direction to associate pastor Joshua (Darian Dauchan), church elder Jay (Greg Alexander) and choir member Jenny (Tara Sissom). They don’t all feel the way he does. With each confrontation we feel Pastor Paul’s own initially resolute faith being tested. The toughest sell of all, though, is his wife, Elizabeth, who feels the most betrayed. As Elizabeth, the magnificent Margaret Laurena Kemp brings a powerful human question into the otherwise esoteric dilemma.

Marcus Crowder: 916-321-1120, @marcuscrowder

The Christians

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What: Lucas Hnath’s drama looks at the aftermath of a pastor’s decision to reinterpret the Bible and his own teachings. Dave Pierini directs with Kurt Johnson, Margaret Laurena Kemp and Darian Dauchan.

When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 2 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Saturdays through Feb. 11.

Where: B Street Theatre B3 Stage, 2711 B St., Sacramento

Cost: $26-$38, $8 Student Rush

Information: 916-443-5300, bstreettheatre.org

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