2017-04-27 / Arts & Entertainment News

Spiritually cerebral ‘The Christians’ opens at Gulfshore Playhouse

Florida Weekly Correspondent

Chairs arranged on either side of a centerpiece cross depict the divide that plays out in “The Christians,” with set design for Gulfshore Playhouse by Kristen Martino. Chairs arranged on either side of a centerpiece cross depict the divide that plays out in “The Christians,” with set design for Gulfshore Playhouse by Kristen Martino. Gulfshore Playhouse’s 2016-17 season comes to a close on a thought-provoking note with “The Christians,” in which playwright Lucas Hnath addresses forged relationships and the splits that divide them.

As the play’s title suggests, the schism of alliances in “The Christians” happens within a house of worship with an enormous congregation. The church family is divided when Pastor Paul (Alan Campbell) — who has spent two decades growing a modest congregation into a megachurch — announces, at a celebration of the church being free of debt, that the congregation will no longer acknowledge a component of traditional theological belief. Thus begins the congregational divide, starting with Associate Pastor Joshua (William Oliver Watkins) and trickling down to church members who find the new doctrine reprehensible.

Mr. Hnath (pronounced “nayth”) was raised in a familial church environment, thus sparking his anecdotal, though extensively researched, view of the inner workings of a place of faith in which so many seek refuge. But decisions driving these sacred second homes for the masses can be fraught with conflict. Are church leaders’ decisions driven by purity or profit? Is the pastor actually hearing the voice of God, or is he disseminating his own will, conveniently cloaked in Biblical verse?

“We live in such a divisive world,” says Kristen Coury, Gulfshore Playhouse founding artistic director. “What Lucas Hnath manages to do is present an unbiased argument. You might take a side, but this play will help you understand the other side of the argument. It’s a look inside what attracts people to their faith, what they’re looking for.

Ms. Coury, who also directs “The Christians,” says she chose to stage the play because she is fascinated by what causes human beings to question their life’s purpose: “God, the afterlife … agesold questions that throughout history have resulted in myriad answers. I am drawn to the answers they find in it,” she says.

The Gulfshore Playhouse production stars returning actor Alan Campbell, who earned a Tony nominee for his work in “Sunset Boulevard” with Glenn Close, as Pastor Paul; returning actor William Oliver Watkins as Associate Pastor Joshua; and the professional company’s veteran actress Amy Van Nostrand as Elizabeth, Pastor Paul’s wife, who packs a punch toward the end of the show.

Rounding out the cast are Stephen Bradbury (Elder Jay) and Kate Fahrner (congregant Jenny), making her Gulfshore Playhouse debut and also singing with the show’s three-member praise band (piano/synthesizer, drums and guitar). “(Kate) has an amazing voice,” Ms. Coury says, comparing the actress’ vocal prowess to that required by the character of Glinda in “Wicked.”

Sound designed by Gabriel Luxton and music directed by John Austin Clark provide the auditory ambiance of the production. Gulfshore Playhouse’s Jennifer Bronsted’s costume work illustrates “The Christians’” characters, and Nick Solyom’s lighting design casts shadows on the faith-imbued script. Scenic designer Kristen Martino’s “American-Christian” set is the show’s centerpiece.

Akin to the 2015 premiere of “The Christians” at Playwrights Horizons off Broadway, Gulfshore Playhouse will have an interactive lobby display for audience members to express their impressions.

“Gulfshore Playhouse lives to create opportunities for thought,” Ms. Coury says, adding the lobby display is part of the company’s Synergy Series of free activities geared toward “thinking more deeply about what a play means to the audience.” In addition to the lobby display, those activities for “The Christians” include panel discussions with clergy and talk-backs following select performances. (Visit www.gulfshoreplayhouse.org/the-synergy-series for information.)

Regardless of any one audience member’s personal beliefs, “The Christians” presents a thought-provoking examination of the power of faith and its ability to unite or to divide. Mr. Hnath’s script is strategically crafted so that the approach is impartial, reaching beyond the subject at hand. Neither singularly nor secularly focused, the play incites audiences to question the cracks in the foundation of all relationships — personal or spiritual — none of which, in reality, are permanent. ¦

‘The Christians’

>> Who: Gulfshore Playhouse

>> When: April 29-May 21

>> Where: The Norris Center

>> Tickets: $20-$64 ($30 for April 27-28 preview performances)

>> Info: 261-7529 or www.gulfshoreplayhouse.org

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