Religion, like politics, may be an unsafe topic for polite conversation, but it sure can make for memorable theater.
Lucas Hnath's 2015 play "The Christians," enjoying a terrific production at Center Stage, manages an almost miraculous feat — addressing matters of faith without condescension, manipulation or belittling. Without even turning preachy, for that matter, though the drama gets its thunderclap of a start from a sermon.
The playwright approaches his work from a position of experience and respect. He spent his early years in Florida attending Christian schools; sat in on seminary classes with this mother, who became an evangelical minister; and briefly considered a life in the church himself. Fortunately for theater lovers, Hnath chose to write for the stage instead (his current Broadway hit is "A Doll's House, Part 2").
In "The Christians," Hnath takes us into the heart of a megachurch headed by the charismatic Pastor Paul, who, like his biblical namesake, undergoes a road-to-Dasmascus moment.
While sitting on a toilet (a neat nod to Martin Luther's apparent situation when he got the inspiration for his revolution), Paul converses with God about an unsettling encounter. The pastor heard a missionary discuss a boy's heroic death and lament that the youth, despite his brave deed, would spend eternity in hell, having failed to embrace Jesus.
Paul senses an indication from on high that such notions are wrong, that hell is what humans put each other through in this life, that believers aren't the only ones with a crack at salvation.
The pastor decides there isn't much point to a church "if all it does is make people feel bad." So he tells his congregation, which grew from a few followers into thousands and now has a debt-free building, that they will no longer be fed the old fire-and-brimstone tenet.
And though he's prepared to argue, in chapter and verse, for his position (his arguments are fascinating), he's also prepared to lose support. But he can't abandon his new conviction that "when we shun our neighbors, when we judge our friends ... When we look down on people from other places and other religions, we create an insurmountable distance where there is no distance at all."
The drama in "The Christians" springs organically from this heretical pronouncement, revealing schisms among the folks in the pews and in the choir loft, among the church elders and in Pastor Paul's marriage. Everyone ends up questioning everything, and there isn't a neat answer to be had.
The extra beauty of the play is that it speaks to any issue, really, that can divide communities of faith — gay rights, abortion, ordination of women, you name it.
Hnath's refusal to choose sides makes the work doubly effective. So does his dialogue, which, aside from a periodic narrative device, sounds uncannily natural every step of the way.
The Center Stage production, tellingly directed by Hana S. Sharif, underlines that sense of verisimilitude.
Mike Carnahan's note-perfect set, framed by video screens and enriched by Jen Schriever's lighting, makes it easy to take on faith that you're in a megachurch. So does the specially assembled choir that adds a vibrant touch to the proceedings, backed by a tight group of instrumentalists led by Jaret Landon.
Howard W. Overshown commands the stage as Pastor Paul, conveying the man's resolve and acuity as well as his worry. It's an exquisite performance.
As the preacher's wife, Elizabeth, who can match her husband for strength of will and depth of feeling, Nikkole Salter does eloquent work. Her intimate scenes with Overshown reach lyrical heights. (Actors use microphones most of the play, as folks in big churches do, but set them aside as the drama becomes more person-to-person, the stakes higher.)
Adam Gerber shines in the role of the shaken associate pastor, and Lawrence Clayton strikes the right notes as a church elder who tries to hold things together.
One of the play's most brilliant moments comes when a chorister steps forward to seek clarification from the pastor on several pressing points. Jessiee Datino makes the character extraordinarily affecting. You can feel the heavy toll on a soul struggling to grasp how the firmest rock might begin to crack.
If you go
"The Christians" runs through Oct. 8 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Tickets are $20 to $74. Call 410-332-0033, or go to centerstage.org.