Theater preview: A megachurch tears itself apart in ‘The Christians’

At a thriving Evangelical megachurch, everything seems to be going well. Congregation, staff and board are energetic and loyal, and the choir is inspiring. The pastor’s wife leads a lively women’s Bible study group, and the church mortgage has just been paid in full. But then one Sunday, the charismatic preacher who built the congregation delivers a surprising sermon, and all heck breaks loose.
Opening April 26 at Town Hall Theater, Middlebury Actors Workshop’s new production of “The Christians” by Lucas Hnath is the story of one church tearing itself apart, and the drama is not limited to theological fine points. Pastor Paul (played by Andy Butterfield) one Sunday declares that Hell does not exist. He claims that God has revealed to him personally that even the worst sinners are saved, no matter what they believe or how they misbehave.
While in some Christian circles this idea is neither new nor shocking, to Paul’s traditional congregation it is divisive heresy. Associate Pastor Joshua (Nicholas Caycedo), immediately steps up to oppose his mentor’s new direction, saying that it threatens the very roots of the church he has helped Paul build. One young member, Jenny (Mary Krantz), feeling betrayed by Paul’s new direction, stands up to leave, and many others follow, joining a new church led by Joshua. Even Paul’s wife, Elizabeth (Molly Walsh), fearing for her family and for Paul’s certain damnation, threatens to leave him.
MAW director Melissa Lourie’s biggest challenge was to make what could have been a dry religious controversy into tangible human drama, and she has achieved that. While Paul and Joshua duel each other with conflicting Bible verses, they also contend physically for position behind the pulpit. MAW’s cast of professional actors is backed up by a choir of 20 local singers, directed by Chuck Miller, and their music reminds us and the congregation of the many things that bind a church community together. The set, designed by Lourie and Matthew Stone, recreates not only a church but in effect an auditorium, with all the main characters speaking into microphones, as if on stage before a congregation of thousands.
Playwright Lucas Hnath (pronounced nayth) based the play on his own upbringing in an evangelical church, and on the real-life story of Tulsa preacher Clayton Pearson, the subject of the Netflix special “Come Sunday” released last week. Hnath’s script does not play favorites; people on all sides of the controversy come alive in sometimes startlingly powerful ways. In one scene, Paul and Elizabeth (still holding their microphones) are on their own bed, tearfully debating the future of their family both in this world and the next.
“‘The Christians’ is different than anything I’ve read before. I love the way it dives into how beliefs shape our relationships, and how personal the story is, how nonjudgmental,” Lourie says. “It seems to me this is a basic human problem — the effort to communicate across the divide of belief.”
“The Christians” will be staged at Town Hall Theater on April 26, 27, 28 at 7:30 p.m., and April 29 at 2 p.m.
There will be two optional post-show talk-backs with audience, cast and local clergy. On Opening Night, Unitarian Universalist Minister the Rev. Barnaby Feder, Middlebury College Professor of Religion Rebecca Kneale Gould, and Havurah member Emily Joselson will moderate.  After the closing matinee on Sunday, April 29, the Rev. Andy Nagy-Benson of the Congregational Church of Middlebury and the Rev. Travis Moses of the Panton Baptist Church will lead the discussion.

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