Theater review

Somewhere in the United States, sometime around now, a handsome, middle-aged megachurch pastor stands before his congregation to deliver some good news and an announcement.

The news: The debt on their massive church (thousands of seats, coffee shop, bookstore, baptismal font the size of a swimming pool) is paid off as of today. Hallelujah.

The announcement: There’s no such thing as hell. Surprise!

So begins the world of “The Christians,” Lucas Hnath’s strange but compelling 2014 drama for five characters (a pastor, his wife, an associate pastor, a congregant, a church board member) and a choir, now being performed in real churches around Seattle by Pony World Theatre.

Airdropping this “Christians,” directed by Leah Adcock-Starr, into actual churches has a disorienting effect. Sitting in pews with bright overhead lights, every character on the dais near the altar and speaking into microphones (per Hnath’s script notes) sounds anti-theatrical on paper — except much of the action takes place on or around a dais. The hard wood under our backsides and that distinct church smell (do they all use the same cleaning products?), plus measured, understated performances by actors who convincingly carry themselves as if talking to a congregation instead of an audience, take this “Christians” and its tale of what happens to a community when it meets a difficult idea into the realm of hyperreality. We even get sheet music to sing along with the hymns.

Pastor Paul (a clean-cut, earnest and benevolent Evan Whitfield) explains this no-hell bombshell. He was at a pastors conference and heard a missionary tell a horrible tale from a country at war: A bomb exploded in a market. A teenage boy rushed into a burning store to save a girl. The girl lived, but the boy was on fire and died on the street. The missionary, Paul recalls, said it was too bad the boy — a nonbeliever, but by all accounts a good guy — went to hell. The missionary asked for money to go save souls.

Paul went to his hotel room and had a distraught conversation with God, who made his big reveal: The boy isn’t in hell. Nobody is in hell. “And there is no reason to tell people that they’re going to Hell,” God told Paul. “You gotta take them out of the Hell they’re already in.”

Associate Pastor Joshua (a quietly brooding Fune Tautala) takes the mic after the sermon to confess he’s unsettled by Paul’s message: “We believe in Hell because the Bible tells us Hell is there, that Hell is the price we pay for sin.”

Associate Pastor Joshua (Fune Tautala, left) prays for guidance after Pastor Paul (Evan Whitfield) tells his megachurch congregation that hell isn’t real in “The Christians,” performed by Pony World Theatre at various Seattle churches.
 (DangerPants Photography)
Associate Pastor Joshua (Fune Tautala, left) prays for guidance after Pastor Paul (Evan Whitfield) tells his megachurch congregation that hell isn’t real in “The Christians,” performed by Pony World Theatre at various Seattle churches. (DangerPants Photography)

Paul gently challenges Joshua to find where, exactly, the Scriptures say this and they have a brief Bible-off: Luke 16:28, Matthew 5:22, 1 Corinthians 15:22. (Hnath, pronounced “Nayth,” grew up in a Florida megachurch and started giving sermons at 10. He knows precisely how these verse-slinging matches can sound: polite and tense.)

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Paul seems to win, but things unravel from there. These good, mild-mannered Christians never lose their temper, even while they lose their nerve. Paul’s church and marriage are threatened by the notion that everlasting torment isn’t actually part of God’s plan.

Hnath is a thoroughly brainy playwright, sometimes to his detriment. His “A Doll’s House, Part 2” is a speculative sequel to Henrik Ibsen’s proto-feminist 1879 play that famously ends with a housewife leaving her family. American Theatre magazine reported that it tied with “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” as the most-produced play of the 2019-20 season — but earlier this year at Seattle Rep, the exercise felt more like a bloodless, graduate-school parlor game than a play with real guts and real stakes.

“The Christians” is different. It also presents as a thought experiment, with characters operating like terms in a problem. Paul has a thesis, Joshua an antithesis, and the others (Elder Jay and Jenny, played by Mark Fullerton and Pilar O’Connell) add complexity, suffering real-world consequences from Paul’s message: congregants leave, taking their tithes elsewhere, or are shunned by fellow-Christian friends who reject the no-hell message as heresy.

But this “Christians” has a warm, beating heart, even when its characters sound like they’re working through a syllogism.

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In one softly heartbreaking scene, Paul and his wife Elizabeth (Sunam Ellis) watch their marriage fray over a matter of belief — she definitely believes in hell and says he’s tearing the church, and their world, apart. If he just believed in hell, life would be so much better for everyone. “What do you want me to do?” Paul asks.

“What I want you to do I don’t want you to do because I want you to do it,” Elizabeth says. Her words read like a logic puzzle, but Ellis speaks them with deep, dignified sorrow: “I want you to do something because you want to do it.”

There’s still love there, but the problem seems intractable.

Maybe Jean-Paul Sartre had it right: Hell is other people — sometimes even the well-meaning ones.

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“The Christians” by Lucas Hnath. Through Oct. 26; Pony World Theatre at various churches around Seattle (see website for details); $10-$20; 800-838-3006, ponyworld.org