by Lorie Lewis Ham
When you walk into the Bonner Auditorium the set makes you feel as though you have stepped into a church. When the show begins with the choir singing, and the pastors walk down the aisle shaking hands, then you feel even more like you have accidentally walked into a church service. But instead, you are at the StageWorks Fresno production of the play The Christians.
I went to this show expecting some sort of parody or comedy about church and Christianity, or perhaps some scathing commentary, but that is not what I found. In The Christians, we find ourselves a part of a Sunday service at a mega church that has just paid off their debt. During his sermon the senior pastor, Paul (Greg Ruud), shares a shocking turn in his beliefs that then begins to unravel the church, starting with the associate pastor, Joshua (Billy Jack Anderson), who is vehemently opposed to Paul’s new stance. Through an epiphany, Paul has decided that he no longer believes that hell is real. Paul and Joshua proceed to have an intense discussion with both using Bible verses to support their beliefs–and they both provide some interesting arguments.
As the show proceeds, you see the senior church elder, Jay (Mark Standriff), attempt to support Paul despite his own concerns, and Paul’s wife, Elizabeth (Katie Lewis), struggling with the situation as well. The church begins to fall apart as people take sides, and many leave the church. At one point one of the church’s loyal parishioners, Jenny (Jennifer Lewis), presents her own concerns and arguments to Pastor Paul. Sprinkled throughout the show the choir does a beautiful job with some lovely hymns, including standout solos by Terry Estabrook and Harrison Mills. Having been raised in church, I could have sung along with most of them.
This show in no way mocks the church, however it does present a real and honest portrayal of what happens when a church splits over a difference of opinion over some theological point–a very sad, heartbreaking, and sometimes ugly, thing that happens way too often.
Greg Ruud as Paul, and Billy Jack Anderson as Joshua, provide very real, emotional, and absolutely incredible performances that draw you in to the story no matter where your own beliefs may stand–and the end of the show does not present any easy answers either way, but leaves the door open for discussion long after the show has ended.
No matter your religious beliefs, I truly believe you will enjoy this complex and honest show, and it will definitely make you think. For those without a church background it will provide you with a peek into a very real experience, and for those who do have a church background you will be able to attest that the portrayal in every aspect is spot on. The entire cast did a great job, and kudos to director J. Daniel Herring for putting together this flawless and emotional production.
Don’t miss The Christians, which is on stage at the Fresno Art Museum’s Bonner Auditorium, 2233 N First St, Fresno, CA, through April 9. Tickets can be purchased at the door and online.
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