A Helluva Dilemma
By Tom Wachunas
“I don't like to commit myself about heaven and hell - you see, I have friends in both places.” - Mark Twain
“Hell is empty and all the devils are here…” - William Shakespeare
“The safest road to hell is the gradual one - the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” - C. S. Lewis
“For Christians, this present life is the closest they will come to Hell. For unbelievers, it is the closest they will come to Heaven.”― Randy Alcorn
Whether you call it anecdotal or apocryphal in nature, there’s enough evidence for the veracity of a journalist’s 1940s encounter with comic and movie actor W.C Fields – a man certainly not known to be religious, but rather famous for his lascivious pursuit of mistresses and booze. Fields was seen anxiously perusing a Bible in the waning days of his life. When asked why, Fields replied simply that he was “looking for loopholes.” For many folks, the thought of an eternity spent burning in Hell is no laughing matter. So maybe Fields’ guilt-riddled conscience was prompting him to seek a back door entry to Heaven, or an emergency fire exit, so to speak.
Christian doctrine tells us that Hell is the ultimate, very real and eternal destination for the unsaved. God’s fiery judgement on unrepentant sinners. Lucas Hnath’s play, The Christians, is a cogent and captivating look at what happens in a modern-day evangelical megachurch when that belief is seriously challenged. Here then is the story of a painful schism caused by a pastor’s venturing to the outer edges of ecclesiastical possibility. He proposes that Hell, as the Church had always understood it to be, does not in fact exist.
For this, the final installment of the summer series by Seat of the Pants Productions, Director Craig Joseph went to considerable lengths in finding an actual church that would agree to stage the play – specifically, the spacious fellowship hall in downtown Canton’s Christ Presbyterian Church. It was a brilliant decision, right down to treating the audience as congregants gathered for a worship service, complete with live band (Steve Miller on piano, Scott Thomas on drums, and vocals by Lisa Kaye Pyles) playing contemporary praise tunes, a projection screen posting church announcements and song lyrics, and prayer time. And of course, there’s a sermon, but one like no other ever delivered to this faithful congregation.
Scott Stachiw delivers a genuinely charismatic portrait of Pastor Paul. But his gently measured, soothing manner belies the disturbing nature of the radical new teaching he’s laying out for his ministry. He explains how his rationale was born while sitting on the toilet and having a conversation with God. It’s an unorthodox burning bush encounter if ever there was one. As the Pastor describes his divine revelation, Andy Simmons, playing the fervent young Associate Pastor Joshua, squirms quietly in his chair as he’s clearly having a tough time digesting the implications. At one point he passionately presents his objections, quoting supportive Scripture, only to be met by the Pastor’s equally passionate counter-arguments.
And so begins the fallout, slowly at first, but with ever-increasing momentum as members of the congregation becomes irrevocably divided, taking their financial support with them – a pragmatic concern sensitively voiced by Tom Stephan playing one of the church Elders.
Meanwhile, Julie Connair, playing a concerned congregant, is remarkably poignant as she pleads for a deeper understanding of her Pastor’s intentions, meanings, and motivations. She finds neither clarity nor lasting comfort in his answers to her urgent questions. Similarly moving in emotional resonance is Meg Hopp as the Pastor’s wife, feeling blindsided by her husband’s decisions, which he seems increasingly unable to defend with any certainty. Questioning the very integrity of their marital relationship, she sadly observes how difficult it is to discern between God’s will and our own wishful thinking.
An especially fascinating narrative device here is the ever-present hand-held microphone, used by not only the Pastor as he addresses his flock at the beginning of the play, but by all of the characters as they speak their lines throughout most of the proceedings. It’s as if the sermon itself is more than just the Pastor’s prepared script, but in fact an amplified continuation of a living sermon – the ongoing thoughts and responses of the entire congregation of...us.
Navigating through perceived loopholes of Biblical interpretation can become a precarious plunge down the proverbial rabbit hole. That said, Lucas Hnath’s writing doesn’t succumb to preachy histrionics, melodramatic propaganda, or obtuse Christian apologetics. What we get instead is the uncanny sensation that these actors aren’t really acting so much as offering an unabashedly honest look at the complex reality of ideological impasses. Their sincerity is so palpable and disarming that we become not merely passive witnesses to a church’s plight, but engaged, sympathetic neighbors sharing the innermost spiritual struggles of a once harmonious community. Church as microcosm of our turbulent times?
For all of the interpersonal Stürm und Drang that transpires during The Christians, the characters never stoop to the murderous rancor so prevalent in today’s societal conflicts. What still reigns clearly enough in this story is a spirit that’s in woefully short supply amidst those conflicts, and that would be…love.
The Christians, a Seat of the Pants Production, directed by Craig Joseph, at Christ Presbyterian Church, 530 Tuscarawas Street W., in downtown Canton, Ohio / Performances at 8 p.m. on Aug. 25 & 26, 2 p.m. on Aug. 27 / Tickets $20 at
PHOTOS by Michael Lawrence Ayers, from top: 1. (l to r) Tom Stephan, Scott Stachiw (center), Megg Hopp / 2. Julie Connair (in center) / 3. Scott Stachiw and Meg Hopp