Sacramento’s B Street Theatre has a well-earned reputation for staging comedies. But they also stage edgier plays as part of their B3 series. Their current show, "The Christians," is set in a rather uncommon location for a play.
When’s the last time you saw a drama that takes place in an unidentified evangelical church? It’s a large congregation in a big sanctuary, and as the play begins, Pastor Paul, the founder, announces that they’ve just paid off the mortgage.
Then he launches into a sermon charting a new direction. He tells his flock that they should stop thinking of hell as a bad place some people go when they die. Rather, he suggests hell is closer to a frame of mind, where people suffer in the here and now because of substance abuse, poverty and worse.
Pastor Paul tells them “there is no reason to tell people they are going to hell, because they are in hell. They’re already there. You need to pull them out of the hell they are already in.
He realizes this is a radical departure from his past teaching, saying “We are no longer a congregation that says my way is the only way. We are no longer that kind of church.”
Now, people in the church, and in the theater, have discussed the nature of hell for centuries. In the 1590s, Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe wrote about the conjurer Doctor Faustus and the demon Mephistopheles, who Faustus summons to his cozy study.
Faustus, a proto-scientist, asks the demon, “Where are you damned?” and Mephistopheles replies, “In hell.” Faustus asks, “How comes it then that thou art out of hell?” The demon says “Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it.”
But back to the contemporary play at the B Street. The pastor’s new message is not well-received. Gradually, an assistant pastor, a deacon, a choir member and even the pastor’s wife express their doubts. And while the setting is today, one can't help but recall how American denominations ripped apart during the Civil War over slavery, and some congregations are splitting now over same-sex marriage.
Playwright Lucas Hnath grew up evangelical, so he’s placed this probing drama in a context he understands. But a different writer could have located this story in a synagogue or a mosque. And this thoughtfully staged production, which includes some strong acting, doesn’t really take up sides. It’s a compelling character study about sincere people, deeply invested in the community they’ve built, as they disagree over just what it is that they ultimately believe. It’s not the sort of story you often encounter in a theater, and that’s part of what makes this unusual play rather special.
The B Street Theatre production of “The Christians” continues in Sacramento through Feb. 12.