Chicago Theatre Review
Imagine There’s No Hell Below Us
The Christians – Steppenwolf
What happens when the minister of an enormous and financially solvent megachurch (think Joel Osteen), all-encompassing in its religious doctrines, suddenly declares in his Sunday message that there’s no such thing as hell. Eyebrows are raised when this paternal pastor, who’s at ease including and sharing personal stories within his sermons, relates a tale about a young man who sacrificed his life in order to save his little sister. The fact that this youth had never known the God of Christianity or accepted Jesus Christ as his savior means, in this church, that as good as he was the boy’s destined to spend eternity burning in hell.
Pastor Paul admits before his congregation that, after much thinking and soul searching, he just can’t get behind that idea. Paul has decided that hell really doesn’t exist; only heaven lies in wait for everyone. He states that the word “hell” is actually derived from an ancient word meaning garbage dump, where the bodies of criminals were once burned. Paul further says that the souls of all men, women and children, good or evil, will be met with loving arms in heaven by God, and all their sins will be immediately forgiven. It’s an admission that, quite understandably, doesn’t sit well with many of his congregation.
Playwright Lucas Hnath’s controversial drama originated at the Humana Festival of New American Plays two years ago in Louisville. It then premiered last year at New York’s Playwrights Horizons where it won the Outer Critics Circle Award for 2016 for outstanding new Off-Broadway play. In this Chicago premiere, ensemble member K. Todd Freeman directs with a cool head and a calm hand, allowing Pastor Paul’s message to create the tremors that gradually seep into the fiber of his parish. Because of the manner in which the play is staged, his congregation also includes the theatre audience. As Paul’s challenged by the Associate Pastor, the Church Elder and financial leader, as well as certain members of his flock, we also begin to think about and question the minister’s message. Hnath’s play becomes a story about the influence of leadership, be it religious, political or social, and the strength or failure of an organization’s doctrines and the faith of its followers.
Longtime ensemble member Tom Irwin steps into the role of Paster Paul, playing this character with a strained smile and the warm demeanor of a man who seems surprised at the riff he’s created. When confronted by those in his flock who object or simply question the pastor’s revelation, Irwin’s minister calmly advises them that they’re free to leave the church. Which they do, much to the shock and dismay of Robert Breuler’s nervously conservative Elder Jay. When the young, street smart Associate Pastor, Joshua, played with passion and propriety by Glenn Davis, outright challenges Paul and refuses to accept his message, there’s nothing to be done but force him to depart the church. Even one of the choir, Sister Jenny, played with power and honest dignity by Jacqueline Williams, questions her pastor’s new choices in doctrine. Wondering why he’s waited until now, when the new church has been paid for and running in the black, to shed this new light she’s baffled. She, along with several others make the choice to abandon their longtime congregation for Pastor Joshua’s new church in another part of town. Even Pastor Paul’s devoted wife, who sits quietly by his side throughout the sermon, and played with love and unruffled calm by Shannon Cochran, ultimately breaks with her husband.
Staged upon Walt Spangler’s all-encompassing theatrical church setting, beautifully lit by Scott Zielinski, Hnath’s play employs the entire Downstairs Steppenwolf venue as its stage. Under Jaret Landon’s musical direction, an impressively talented live choir performs for the first ten minutes of this 80-minute one-act. The singers include aith Howard, Yando Lopez, Jazelle Morriss, Mary-Margaret Roberts, Charlie Strater as well as Ms. Williams, with accompaniment provided by Landon and Strater on keyboard and guitar, and Leonard Maddox, Jr. on drums. The sound that rises from these gifted vocalists and musicians fills the theatre and lifts everyone’s spirits, regardless of the theatergoer’s religious convictions.
This is a play that will challenge its audiences. No matter a patron’s religious beliefs there’s food for thought in this concise, yet inconclusive drama. It dares to ask some pretty controversial questions but it also has the good sense not to provide any pat solutions. Lucas Hnath’s play allows each audience member to formulate his own answers.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented December 1-January 29 by Steppenwolf Theatre Company in their downstairs theatre venue, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling them Audience Services at 312-335-1650 or by going to www.steppenwolf.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.