In the past, whenever I’ve had the need in a review to use words like “preachy” or “sermonizing” to describe a play, it’s generally with a critical connotation.
In the context of “The Christians,” artistic director Freddie Ashley’s compelling Actor’s Express staging of a drama by Lucas Hnath (who scored a big hit on Broadway this year with “A Doll’s House, Part 2”), it’s an utmost compliment. The play is preachy and sermonizing, eloquently so and with every legitimate reason to be, but the production never feels like it in some forced or artificial sense.
We’re gathered for Sunday services in a stately sanctuary (handsomely rendered by scenic designers Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay). Members of the church choir file into place and sing a couple of hymns, before our Pastor (Brian Kurlander) takes to the pulpit to impart a sensitive and insightful message about “powerful urges,” “radical changes,” “unpaid debts” and the “fires of hell.”
In these first several minutes of what may rank as the actor’s finest hour (and a half) to date, Kurlander delivers the daunting monologue with a masterful authority that transfixes. He recounts the story of a young man, who sacrifices his own life to save another from a burning building, and then challenges us to consider (or reconsider) the man’s immortal soul: Should he be eternally doomed just because, as it turns out, he’s a “nonbeliever” – or, rather, should his selfless actions speak louder than any words, even holy ones?
Slowly but surely, all hell breaks loose, in a manner of speaking. When the pastor’s Associate (Enoch King) rises to lead the congregation in prayer, he’s moved to initially question and finally reject the minister’s alternately literal and liberal interpretation of the Bible. “It goes against everything we believe,” he pleads. “Hell is the price we pay for our sins.” He calls for a poll of the parishioners, a few of whom decide to join him in abruptly leaving the church.
The ramifications accelerate. A “crack in the foundation of the church” soon becomes an “insurmountable distance” between the opposing factions. The true strength of Hnath’s script is how judiciously it balances the debate — skillfully provoking us to choose sides, instead of simply choosing one for us. Neither the Pastor nor the Associate is entirely right or wrong; one is no more (or less) sound and compassionate than the other.
Similarly, Kurlander finds a worthy match in King, who’s on something of a roll lately (most recently, so good in Dominion Entertainment’s “A Lesson Before Dying”). If Kurlander’s opening sermon reveals such a dynamic display of talent, King’s heartbreaking closing argument in the play is its own tour de force.
Ashley’s excellent cast also includes Kathleen Wattis Kettrey (as the pastor’s Wife), Greta M. Glenn (the church Elder) and Sarah Newby Halicks (the Congregant).
The show’s only false note is a structural gimmick. Rather than cutting away to different scenes or settings, characters basically stand around the sanctuary holding microphones, and the Pastor turns to us with stage directions: “One day, the Elder comes into my office and says … We hug, she leaves and closes the door behind her … .”
Otherwise, in its more spiritual objectives, “The Christians” is a fairly religious experience in any number of ways.
Through Oct. 15. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. $21.60-$39.96. Actor’s Express (at King Plow Arts Center), 887 W. Marietta St. NW, Atlanta. 404-607-7469, www.actors-express.com.
Bottom line: Stirring.