Between heaven & hell

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Tuesday February 7, 2017
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Anthony Fusco, as the pastor of a mega-church, tries to<br>convince a young congregant (Millie Brooks) about his radical reinterpretation<br>of church theology in <i>The Christians</i> at<br>SF Playhouse. Photo: Jessica Palipoli
Anthony Fusco, as the pastor of a mega-church, tries to
convince a young congregant (Millie Brooks) about his radical reinterpretation
of church theology in The Christians at
SF Playhouse. Photo: Jessica Palipoli

Whatever we imagine heaven to be like, its parameters can only stretch as far as the boundaries of human imagination. "I want the heaven that my mind cannot fathom," says the pastor of a mega-church to his congregation. And that could mean that Adolph Hitler might very well be in the good place along with those who lived the holiest of lives. "Wouldn't that be heaven, a place where everything that was awful about Earth is gone, where the wrong that one has done is washed away?" Not necessarily, according to his flock.

In Lucas Hnath's thought-provoking The Christians, now in a handsome production at San Francisco Playhouse, Pastor Paul relates to his congregation a revelation during an overseas missionary meeting, where a young boy ran into a burning building to rescue a girl, giving up his own life for hers. Too bad he wasn't a Christian, someone says, because now he's in hell.

The pastor tries to prove that the Bible never actually mentions a hell, and when the associate pastor cites a passage where it seems to, Pastor Paul is at the ready, saying that in the original language the reference was to an actual pit near Jerusalem where garbage was burned. Hellish, yes; hell, no. Try as he might to pry the stick from the Biblical carrot-and-stick paradigm, a growing number of his congregation follow the associate pastor to a breakaway church. For them, the concept of an actual hell better serves their faith.

Hnath's play is part theater and part theological debate, some of it played out during church services and some behind the scenes. There is a suggestion at the start of the play that some sort of scandalous drama might soon be played out from the pulpit, as Pastor Paul ominously opens a sermon by declaring, "There is a crack in the foundation of this church." But the playwright basically wants a serious discussion of religious tenets, and all sides are given a chance to express themselves reasonably. It's interesting enough to get you to pay attention, but theatrically speaking, it's only mildly dramatic.

Director Bill English's staging does what the playwright asks for, which includes indulging Hnath's idiosyncratic fondness for microphones and the cables that trail them, having characters use corded hand mikes both when speaking to the vast congregation, but also in personal moments up to and including a conversation between the pastor and his wife in bed. Hnath has explained in interviews the reason for this device " the public implications of even private conversations " but still it's an odd distraction.

English's set sleekly replicates the stage of a big-budget modern cathedral, with abstract designs in the stained-glass windows and large video screens streaming images of harmonic natural beauty. The production even comes with a 16-member choir (courtesy of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of SF) that breaks into periodic songs from their perches on risers behind the pulpit and the regal chairs for church dignitaries.

Slick and smarmy types often occupy those chairs, at least those who have managed to score television deals, but there's none of that in Anthony Fusco's portrayal of a pastor whose charisma stems from an earnest geniality that can mostly hide a low-key arrogance that brings on a schism. As the associate pastor who is shown the door, Lance Gardner suggests priggishness that doesn't devolve into self-righteousness. Even when sitting silently, Warren David Keith exudes steely authority as a church elder whose support for Pastor Paul is crucial. Millie Brooks shines in a featured scene as a young congregant who engages the pastor in a heartfelt debate, and Stephanie Prentice has a quiet dignity as the pastor's wife who harbors her own doubts about his recalibration of church doctrine.

The wife is the one who catches the pastor up in a conundrum that he is strained to answer. "Absolute tolerance," she asks, "requires intolerance of the intolerant?"

 

The Christians will run through March 11 at San Francisco Playhouse. Tickets are $20-$125. Call (415) 677-9596 or go to sfplayhouse.org.