In the Moment: ‘The Christians’ at Theater J

‘Inspired’ is the word that comes to mind for Adam Immerwahr’s selection of The Christians by Lucas Hnath for this, his first full season as Artistic Director for DC’s Theater J. What an exceptional mark the new leadership of Theater J makes with the superb casting and staging of The Christians under director Gregg Henry’s dazzlingly affecting touch.

Michael Russotto in 'The Christians' at Theater J. Photo by
Justin Weaks, Michael Russotto, and Michael Willis in ‘The Christians.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Yes, I was entranced and way more than merely fascinated with Hnath’s The Christians.

Please, do not let the title put you off. This is a play for all, no matter beliefs or non-beliefs. The particular theatrical setting of The Christians could likely be any house of worship. Hnath’s play may use a Christian mega-church as his setting, but the issues raised are universal and contemporary in nature.    The issues are not just of theology and belief, but how an unexpected, unilateral change in a preached tenant of faith brings deep fissures to a close marriage, major cracks to the business side of funding a faith institution and a schism that produces a new house of worship.

The Christians and this Theater J production are about intellectual inquiry and debate. It is about trying to make sense of belief when it comes in contact with real-life contemporary situations. It about coming into intimate contact with new thinking while wrestling with genuine, long-held views of God and faith.

A quick synopsis: Pastor Paul (Michael Russotto as a generally, affable man) is caught like a deer in headlights in reactions to his unilateral change in beliefs about the existence of Hell during a sermon. He is the pastor of a mega -church that he founded some two decade before. His sermon shakes the rafters.

Annie Greer and Michael Russotto. Phot by C. Stanley Photography.
Annie Greir and Michael Russotto. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

One distraught congregant named Jenny (a touching, honest, and anxious performance by Annie Grier) quietly and in public challenges Pastor Paul. Senior church leadership including Elder Jay (a stoic then defiant Michael Willis), Associate Pastor Joshua (shocked then forcefully impassioned Justin Weaks) and Pastor Paul’s wife Elizabeth (tremendous as the at first soundlessly, but oh so visually troubled Caroline Clay) are seated behind him.  Why did he deliver the sermon just then? What was behind it?  Was it personal or of faith?

The Christians fits quite agreeably with other the Theater J offerings this season such as the thought-provoking works of older playwrights, including Arthur Miller and Michael Frayn as well as even the comic, coming-of-age work of Neil Simon.

Yes, The Christians is a very clickable title in these days of “word-of-mouth” by means of social media. Know that underneath that clickable title is a remarkable Theater J production that addresses the mysteries and schisms of religion when one’s beliefs find themselves called into question 

Yes, for some The Christians may seem a stretch for Immerwahr’s Theater J. But, let’s say you are one that might disagree with a recent tweet from the President-elect. Theater really isn’t just a safe place to reinforce cherished notions is it? If you are like that, as I am, then find your way to Theater J.  You will be well rewarded.

Justin Weaks and Carolyn Clay. Photo by
Justin Weaks and Carolyn Clay. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The Theater J production of The Christians took cajones, or should I write chuzpah. The Christians shows universal issues with common roots. It is America with its many different religions and faiths. It makes great theater.

Running Time: 80 minutes, with no intermission. 

The Christians plays November 16 to December 11, 2016, at Theater J at The Edlavitch DCJCC’s Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater –1529 16th Street, NW (16th and Q Streets), in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 777-3210, or purchase them online.

Magic Time! “It’s Our Most Jewish Play This Season”: A Q&A With Adam Immerwahr About ‘The Christians’ at Theater J by John Stoltenberg on DCMetroTheaterArts.

So ‘The Christians’ Walks Into a Jewish Theatre… How does Lucas Hnath’s play about conflict in a megachurch fit Theater J’s mission? Adam Immerwahr explains by Rob Weinert-Kendt in American Theatre.

Note: The production is enlivened and backed with the magnificent joyful noise of a live choir that lifts Theater J into the high heavens.

Theater J has well over a dozen choir partner choirs for The Christians.  There will be a different choir performing at each of the Theater J performances. At the performance I attended was the Refreshing Spring Church of God in Christ James E. Jordan Jr. Choir led by Robert Ford, Choir Director.


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