K. Todd Freeman, Steppenwolf ensemble member and Director of “The Christians,” is one of the most important talents to be found among Chicago’s robust theater community. As an actor (Tony-nominated for 2014’s “Airline Highway”) and maestro (2012’s electric “Good People”), Freeman influences projects that refract sociopolitical and spiritual dynamics into fascinating onstage shapes.
And he’s done it again with the Windy City premiere of playwright Lucas Hnath’s 2015 work, “The Christians.” Press materials describe the production as one of “great complexity and passion [which looks] at the relationship between belief and behavior… [an] evenhanded, unbiased take on faith in modern America.”
The work can be appreciated agnostically, though it is clear from auditing the Book of Job-esque cautionary tale of a righteously compromised man, that Hnath has read his Bible. And under the direction of Freeman, a Deacon’s son, a tortured, and at times wistful portrait of theology and fellowship is brought to life.
Pastor Paul (a layered and deft Tom Irwin) is the man with everything — the beautiful, devoted wife (Shannon Cochran), a growing congregation and a newly debt-free church. The preacher is the spiritual leader of thousands, a man seemingly in command of traditional morality infused with 21st Century humanistic flexibility.
One fine Sunday, Pastor Paul confidently takes his place at the lectern to articulate a “new belief in the nature of salvation.” What could go wrong with sharing a more inclusive interpretation of forgiveness?
In short and without spoilers, just about everything. Yet because of Hnath’s subtle, graded writing, Freeman’s careful direction and a number of top-drawer acting performances, there are no finite answers. If the audience is left with more questions than certainty by curtain call, that’s precisely the point.
After all, saints and sinners are rarely as straightforward as their neat categorizations imply. “Schism” is a word carefully chosen in the dialogue as well as the work’s plot summary. As Pastor’s Paul’s congregation and spiritual authority are tested, relationships viewed as unwavering from an outsider’s perspective begin to splinter.
Veteran actress Jacqueline Williams delivers a shattering profile of structural and personal crisis. As Jenny, a believer who feels betrayed and deceived by her pastor’s evolution, the artist conveys a desperate need for simple, clear direction. As an audience member, it’s impossible to remain unmoved by Williams’ vulnerability.
Jenny has struggled, suffered and given so much that her weary pleas for accessible duality — heaven/hell, Jesus/The Devil — feel less like judgmental denunciation and more like bereft confusion. Through Williams’ tears and soft speech, we hear Jenny’s accusation loud and clear, “I have burdens enough to carry. You were supposed to take this one, Pastor Paul.”
Tom Irwin, a 1990s pop cultural legend for Generation Xers, is the understated glue that holds the powerful cast together. Many fans will find parallels between Pastor Paul and Graham Chase, the complicated television dad Irwin played on ABC’s “My So-Called Life.” Both characters appear to have it all, but are cut off from enjoying their earthly bounties by self-destructive streaks that may or may not indicate a misguided allegiance to personal over public morality.
Why did Pastor Paul unburden his soul that fateful Sunday morning? Was he really bidden by the voice of God, or was he victimized by his own hubris, the freedom of speech and direction permitted by a mortgage bill paid in full? Audience members will never be more certain than the conflicted Jenny, or Pastor Paul’s wife, who wonders about the implications for her own spirituality pursuant to her spouse’s epiphany.
What audiences of “The Christians” can say with certainty is that the conversion of Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre into a church with a live pre-show choir packs a powerful, authentic punch that sets the production’s tone. Veteran Scenic Designer Walt Spangler evokes the feel of a cavernous megachurch juxtaposed with the intimacy of direct spiritual conversation.
And chorus members Williams, Faith Howard, Yando Lopez, Leonard Maddox Jr., Jazelle Morriss, Mary-Margaret Roberts and Charlie Strater take viewers to the metaphorical mountaintop (regardless of belief) with soaring, passionate vocals that demand clapped hands and movement.
With an 80-minute running time and no intermission, “The Christians” is quickly paced, deeply felt and worthy of a spot on your 2016/2017 winter theater calendar.
“The Christians” runs through January 29, 2017 at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N Halsted Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-335-1650 or visit the Steppenwolf Theatre website.