Theater review: Riveting ‘Christians’ asks tough questions

Pastor Paul (Andy Butterfield) tries to reason with Associate Pastor Joshua (Nicholas Caycedo) in the Middlebury Actors Workshop production of “The Christians.” (Photo by Peter Lourie)

MIDDLEBURY — With evangelicals often taking the forefront these days, Lucas Hnath’s 2014 play “The Christians” asks some difficult and timely questions. Middlebury Actors’ Workshop opened a riveting production of this searing drama, Thursday at Town Hall Theater. What “The Christians” is all about is never quite defined: An enlightened pastor rejected by his rigid congregation? A narcissistic pastor too self-centered to understand his congregation’s inability to accept radical change? A condemnation of rigid and inhumane theology? Or all of the above? In this powerful production professional directed by MAW Artistic Director Melissa Lourie, Andy Butterfield is the charismatic pastor, Paul, who leads an evangelical Christian mega-church. While at a pastors’ conference, he heard the story from a missionary of a young man who burned to death saving his young sister from a fire. But the boy had not acknowledged Christ as his savior so, according to this church, he was condemned to Hell. Scarily believable, Butterfield’s Paul delivers a sermon, as powerful as you’re likely to hear anywhere, about how God came to him and told him it was not so. In fact, Paul says, Jesus saves all. Everyone goes to Heaven. Joshua, the church’s associate pastor, a most earnest and convincing Nicholas Caycedo, publicly begs to differ. After trying to argue with the intellectually superior Paul, Joshua demands a secret ballot vote. Paul wins handily, and he immediately dismisses Joshua from the congregation. Then Paul’s troubles begin. The church elder Jay, played real dimension by Gary Smith, though purporting to support Paul, is concerned with the loss of the popular Joshua, who has begun his own congregation. Young, troubled congregant Jenny questions Paul on how to deal with rejection by her traditional evangelical boyfriend. Paul has no answers — except that he is right. Paul’s biggest challenge is his loving wife, Elizabeth, a sympathetic and affecting Molly Walsh. When Elizabeth reveals she is having trouble dealing with the new Paul, he is lost. Despite a few lagging moments, Thursday’s performance was certainly potent. All but the finale was softened by a fine 20-voice gospel choir, directed by Chuck Miller. Butterfield gave a most involving portrayal of how charisma can destroy, contrasted by Walsh’s Elizabeth who needs to hold onto something permanent to survive. The stage action centers on an evangelical church sanctuary created by Lourie and Matthew Stone. The drama was underscored by Mike Mitrano’s lighting design, and appropriate costumes by Marykay Dempewolff. “The Christians” lays bare questions about religion and those who practice it. It also proved to be a powerful, riveting theater experience.   Middlebury Actors Workshop Middlebury Actors Workshop presents “The Christians” by Lucas Hnath April 26-29 at Town Hall Theater, 68 S. Pleasant St. in Middlebury. Remaining performances are at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $22, $12 for students; call 802-382-9222, or go online to

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