Review: “The Christians” at San Francisco Playhouse

There’s no two ways about it: The Christians is magnificent. Lucas Hnath has been an author to watch for some time now, with his fascinatingly complex plays that use the medium of stagecraft in bold and innovative ways in order to tackle the enormously complicated issues that we all face merely by existing. With The Christians, a quasi-reworking of the Antigone myth, Hnath has firmly established himself as an important modern playwright, creating his most dramatically complete and emotionally resonant play to date. San Francisco Playhouse is currently mounting a production of The Christians that is, in a word: perfect, undoubtably serving as the company’s finest production yet.

The Christians is set in a church. Not just any church, mind you, but a mega-church, a gargantuan several-thousand seat hall of worship with, among other amenities, a coffee shop, a gift shop, and an escalator. The play begins when the Pastor of the church gives a sermon about a radical change that he is making in the church’s ideology and deals with the implications and cost of such a change within a supposedly tight-knit community.

Hnath’s style is slightly tricky to grasp without any preparation, so I’ll provide some slight detail: The Christians is staged entirely as a Sunday church service, complete with a full choir (provided by the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco), the actors all seated in individual chairs facing the audience, the characters speaking into handheld microphones, and all scenes taking place without any kind of scenery and very little physical staging, while the Pastor provides the stage directions verbally. It’s a fascinating form of stagecraft, one that Tarell Alvin McCraney has been wont to use as well (albeit in a slightly less rigorous form), but it allows for the play to become a discussion of ideas removed from the form of classic play structure without stretching the credibility of the audience.

At 90 minutes, the play mostly consists of six separate monologues that all represent disparate viewpoints, ultimately creating perhaps the most complicated and emotionally true morality play that this reviewer has ever seen or read. What Hnath does so beautifully is that he never confronts the idea of a Christian faith in any form, with every character believing unequivocally in the Christian Resurrection, nor does he belittle the intelligence of the faithful, as some playwrights have a tendency to do, merely showing the complexities that arise within a like-minded community faced with change. Thankfully, the perspectives shown in the play are never standoffishly religious; rather, they have a deep undercurrent of powerfully moving humanity that is recognizably universal. If this all sounds rather vague, I am intentionally obfuscating details of the plot that are better observed while the play transpires than to know about before going in. Suffice to say that The Christians is a play that will engage your brain and conscience in a way that is very rare, and does so with immense pathos.

I didn’t get to see The Christians in its New York premiere at Playwrights Horizons in 2015, but it’s hard to imagine that it was at all better than the current San Francisco Playhouse production, which gets absolutely everything right in a play that is very easy to get very wrong. Bill English has directed his cast of five to perform the play with absolute naturalism, a contrast to the willfully artistic style of the play that allows for the underlying current of humanity to bubble up in full force. When Anthony Fusco gives his opening monologue (soliloquy) as the Pastor, you immediately recognize him as the gentile priest that could have walked right out of your childhood church. This goes for the rest of the cast too (Lance Gardner as an associate pastor, Warren David Keith as a member of the board of the church, and Stephanie Prentice as the Pastor’s wife), for whom the highest compliment I could ever bestow is that I forgot that they were acting, even in a play that is so careful to remind you of its theatricality. I do feel that I should give special mention to Millie Brooks, who plays an important character that I will only identify as Congregant. A relatively new face, she is more than capable of holding her own amongst a cast of veteran Bay Area actors. I doubt this will be the last we’ll hear from Ms. Brooks. Bill English, who is not only a talented director, but also one of the best scenic designers in the area, has designed the set himself, which is a modern, vacuous, and sterile work of wonder. I couldn’t possibly imagine a way to improve this production, which has a strong possibility of being the best thing I’ll see in the area in 2017.

Go; go now. It’s an impossibly timely play, an important piece of 21st century playwriting, and a beautifully moving and thought-provoking night at the theatre.

The Christians plays at San Francisco Playhouse at the Kensington Park Hotel through March 11th. Tickets and information available here.

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