By Gwen Rice Special to OnMilwaukee Published Dec 11, 2020 at 12:01 PM

Next Act Theatre’s beautifully realized production of "The Christians," by Lucas Hnath, could not have come at a better time. In a moment when the chasm between “us” and “them” in American society has never felt wider, when facts are routinely overthrown by beliefs in discourse, this play examines just how difficult it is for people to take in new information that contradicts their previous, foundational views. It also exposes how important that familiar bedrock of doctrine is to their equilibrium.

Hnath’s much-lauded play explores a sudden shift in belief by a beloved minister at an evangelical mega-church. Pastor Paul (a carefully controlled but caring David Cecsarini) has had a revelation – while sitting on the toilet – about who, exactly, should go to heaven. After hearing a wrenching tale of self sacrifice on the part of a boy in a third world, non-Christian country, Paul is converted (much like the biblical Saul/Paul on the road to Damascus). He's now sure that it’s God’s universal love for all his children that secures them a place in the hereafter – not the successful completion of a list of specific tasks or the adherence to one set of Christian dogma. 

This comes as a shock to the entire congregation. Hnath shows us the specific reactions of Paul’s wife Elizabeth (a terrific, measured Marti Gobel), a member of his church board (Rick Richter), a confused and hurt parishioner (Emily Vitrano), and the church’s Associate Pastor Joshua (Andrew Muwonge). In the moment that the church’s philosophy is changed, Joshua is the only one who speakes up. A man of fierce faith, he believes — inconveniently — that God has also spoken to him, saying that Pastor Paul is wrong.

In a genius bit of site-specific theater, Next Act has outdone their set designers by locating the production inside the gorgeous Gethsemene United Methodist Church in Pewaukee, complete with towering, colorful stained glass windows, banners proclaiming “faith” and “love,” and rows of pews that encircle the speaker. You can almost smell the requisite lilies and altar candles through your screen. And the minister’s office looks well set-dressed because it’s an actual minister’s office.

But as “real” as the settting is, there are key elements of the play that feel like they’ve been omitted.

What this set can’t do, in the era of COVID, is fill the building with worshippers, which the script numbers as “thousands.” So a crucial element missing in the play is the feeling that Pastor Paul and Assistant Pastor Joshua are preaching before an immense crowd, normally approximated with the play’s audience members. By design, what the ministers are saying isn’t supposed to feel like an intimate conversation; they are proclamations in front of an enormous audience – many thousands more than regularly fill most theaters – and those witnesses naturally raise the stakes of each, very public line. Since the show lacks the weight of preaching in front of an enormous congregation, all of its revelations feel small.

Similarly, director Ed Morgan has taken much of the charismatic, televangelist fervor out of the play and replaced it with a calm, almost academic tone. On the plus side, this allows the characters – and the audience – to consider the question of heaven and hell intellectually and focus on how arguments are made instead of the emotion behind them. It also avoids a level of caricature that fire and brimstone televangelists tend to fall into, and perhaps removes any “us versus them” barriers between sedate, WASPy audiences and the characters they are asked to relate to. But it also removes much of the passion from the story and, in some cases, runs counter to the script itself. This also lowers the overall emotional stakes in the production.

At the top of the show, Pastor Paul describes his church congregation as “starting with a few people in a parking lot” and growing to an amphitheater, complete with high tech projection screens, a swimming pool-sized baptismal font, a coffee shop and even an escalator. This size matters because in order to command a flock that would grow exponentially to fill that space, the pastor’s speech, his presence, his Sunday sermon performances need to be big – maybe even larger than life. That energy and charisma is completely missing from Cecsarini’s humble, aw-shucks demeanor. The dramatic change in tone from a traditional revival meeting to the contemplative, woke acceptance of all people as children of God, is also absent. That extraordinary shift in both doctrine and style would have signaled the enormity of the change to the audience and made the clash of views more violent, and the congregants’ ultimate rejection of those views more stark. 

Even with these changes that make the production much more sedate, there are many moving performances. The most overtly poignant speeches come from Emily Vitrano as Jenny, a parishioner with deep ties to the church but grave concerns about squaring Pastor Paul’s new interpretation of heaven and hell with very practical parts of her life. Her reluctant questions about how she can continue to support the church are simply heartbreaking.

As Pastor Paul’s wife Elizabeth, Marti Gobel is also sensational as a woman with her own very deeply rooted views on God and the hereafter, a partner who is not willing to abandon her beliefs simply because her husband has had an abrupt change of heart. Through their interpersonal reckoning, Gobel delicately reveals the “cracks in the foundation” of their marriage that lie just below the surface of the supportive smile she wears during services. 

Andrew Muwonge’s characterization of Pastor Joshua starts out slowly, seeming more disengaged with the shocking initial sermon than outraged. But his speech near the play’s end, explaining how his experience confirms his conviction in the existence of hell, is absolutely gripping. And his promise to pray for his one-time mentor feels generous and authentic.

"The Christians" has been compared to Henrik Ibsen’s "Enemy of the People," where a community leader delivers some shocking news. And although he has an abundance of proof on his side, one by one, the townspeople reject him and his views – because the cost of changing their minds is too great. But Ibsen’s play deals with science. Hnath’s play deals with faith — with ideas that cannot be proven or disproven, they must simply be felt and believed. That is what makes the arguments in the play so much more interesting and prickly: There is no way to know who is right. 

A final note: So how did they do it? How did Next Act manage to have two actors share the same space at the same time during a pandemic? 

According to the company’s marketing director A.J. Magoon, all of the actors had to get two consecutive negative tests prior to beginning in-person rehearsals. They were also tested weekly until the filming wrapped up. Next Act worked with Actors’ Equity and the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society on safety plans, which included separate entrances to the building for actors and administrators, separated bathrooms, masks whenever not acting, and other measures. Finally, the Equity actors were filmed separately from non-Equity actors.