Pastor Paul has news for his evangelical congregation of thousands.
The 20-year-old church is debt-free and he no longer believes in hell as a place for eternal punishment in the afterlife.
That second announcement and the way it fractures the congregation is beautifully portrayed in Lucas Hnath’s one-act play, “The Christians,” being performed this month at Acadia Repertory Company on Mount Desert Island. Hnath (pronounced nayth) premiered the play in 2014 at the Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville.
“The Christians” looks at the human impact such a drastic change in a pastor’s theology might have on a flock. Hnath’s play reflects a 2011 outroar in the evangelical community caused by megachurch Pastor Bob Bell’s book, “Love Wins,” that questioned the existence of hell.
Director C Andrew Mayer delicately balances competing viewpoints and never lets his company of actors slip into judgmental tones. Everyone is polite and respectful of other congregants’ viewpoints, which allows the audience to ponder the theological questions with which the characters are grappling.
Dustin Whitehead as Pastor Paul perfectly captures the conversational preaching style of many modern evangelical pastors but he also subtly portrays the autocratic nature many ministers find suits them. The pastor acknowledges those who disagree with him but dismisses their arguments and invites them to leave.
Many congregants follow the younger, more charismatic associate pastor, played by Andy Schnabel. Schnabel quietly captures Joshua’s dilemma in challenging his mentor but the actor also portrays an ambitious pastor who recognizes an unexpected opportunity to lead his own church and grabs it.
While the pastors cite Scripture and theology, a single-mother struggling financially who has found a family in the church asks the hard and practical question: If there is only a heaven and no hell, would my son and his possible murderer be in heaven together for eternity?
Mary Paola, a 2017 graduate of Mount Desert Island High School, gives an emotional and touching performance that infuses “The Christians” with a living, breathing soul. Her dilemma over whether she can stay knowing that Pastor Paul’s answer to her question is yes or follow Pastor Joshua and leave the church she calls home is heart wrenchingly real because of Poala’s finely nuanced portrayal.
Ali Fitzpatrick as Pastor Paul’s wife and Frank Bachman as Elder Jay are equally fine. Fitzpatrick’s portrayal of Elizabeth is especially poignant. The actress raises unanswered questions about the expectations congregation’s put on pastor’s wives, which rarely are compensated with a title or pay.
The ending of “The Christians” is ambiguous. In addition to the question of whether hell is a real place for punishment in the afterlife or not, left dangling is whether Pastor Paul’s revelation will leave him alone in his own personal hell on earth.
“The Christians” is a fascinating study in the questions that plague modern Christianity and the impact a change in belief can have on others. Acadia Rep deserves an audience and applause for taking the risk of staging the show in secular Maine, where church attendance is amongst the lowest in the nation.
The company will host a post-show discussion with the cast and clergy from MDI churches at 3:30 p.m. following the Sunday, July 16 matinee.
“The Christians” will be performed through July 23 at Acadia Repertory Company at the Masonic Hall in Somesville on Mount Desert Island. For information, call 244-7250 or visit acadiarep.com.