by John Stoltenberg
A debate about the existence of hell is combusting in the nation’s preeminent Jewish theater. And that particular drama in that particular venue could not be more anomalous.
There is in Judaism no eternal damnation after death—no conception of it, thus no controversy over it. Not that there’s a shortage of guilt among Jews; there’s plenty to go around. But Yahweh the God of the Hebrews never mentioned you go to hell for it.
Yet now onstage at Theater J, a theological rift among Christians about whether hell exists is raising the rafters.
Jews have rituals to observe for atonement from guilt, but for some weird reason the guilt going around among Christians has needed a divinely ordained driver in the form of really dire consequences if you don’t get off the hook before you die for screwing up in life. Said exoneration, Christians say, can be had only one way: You have to consciously accept that a Jew named Jesus of Nazareth was God’s authorized Surrogate and cancelled your guilt debt by dying Himself.
Funny how free-floating guilt seems so endemic in our species. Other higher mammals can seem to feel sad or bad but they don’t walk around feeling guilty; only homo sapiens do that. Where guilt comes from and how to get rid of it has been the stuff of faiths and cults and human hopes since time immemorial.
Curious too all the ways humans have come up with for obviating guilt, for experiencing atonement, forgiveness, and salvation. Apparently apologizing and making amends whenever you screw up is not enough, and would be never-ending even if it were.
So that is briefly the psychic and spiritual backstory for the intellectually transfixing script and emotionally searing performances that in Theater J’s current production of Lucas Hnath’s play The Christians have coalesced into a major event of the DC theater season.
For starters and for shockers, the Theater J space has been transformed into the nave of a megachurch. The whole megillah.
Three illuminated crosses—sleek brass fabrications of the Golgotha trio—are suspended upstage. A lectern, chancel seating, and various mics are arranged about. Behind the crosses is a jumbo screen upon which Scenic and Projections Designer Jonathan Dahm Robertson has clouds drifting by in a heaven-like sky along with lyrics to explicitly Christian hymns.
Standing in the balconies on either side are members of a spirited choir singing said hymns, with their conductor and pianist/organist. (On opening night it was the stirring voices of the Refreshing Spring Church of God in Christ James E. Jordan Jr. Choir. At other performances of The Christians, there will be different church and community choirs.) Sconces that normally surround the Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater auditorium now appear within the set as well, making it seem as if this whole place had been built to begin with as a Christian house of worship. Which folks who are keenly aware that Christianity already has a plenty big footprint in America might reasonably chafe at.
But for anyone accustomed to the view from a Christian pew, this was déjà vu. And even for those unfamiliar with such liturgical depictions, all these ersatz trappings of faith called forth a certain suspension of unbelief. For as soon as a minister character started preaching a sermon to us—an oration that went on for twenty-odd minutes—we were all pitched into a blurry borderland between audience and congregation. That disequilibrium was, I believe, by design. And in a production directed with consummate skill by Gregg Henry, that ambiguity was among the evening’s greatest existential achievements.
Do we applaud the choir as if we are congregants or as if we are theatergoers? When the minister says “Let us pray” and the actors in character onstage bow their heads, do we do so as well? And if we do, are we praying or are we playing along with audience participation? When an “Amen” is called for, how are we to respond? Like we do when and where we worship, or like we’re cold-reading a script?
Who are we, really, in this moment? Who were we when we came in and who have we now become in this time and space?
In what sense is this theater “creating the audience” for itself (as lots of great theater does)? And/or in what sense are we playing a role we’re used to playing in places where we go (or used to go) to actually pray? And/or in what sense are we reserving our right as attendees in the classical “seeing space” that is theater to observe, to witness, to reflect, to assess—not aloofly, but not spiritually invested either?
And who are we when the debate then combusts? when the characters take sides? when the senior minister Pastor Paul (played both nobly and humbly by Michel Russotto) divulges in his sermon that he is not on board with the concept of hell—and all hell breaks loose in his parish? when Elder Jay (a down-to-business Michael Willis) warns of the fiscal down side of Pastor Paul’s going rogue? when Associate Pastor Joshua (an absolutely on-fire Justin Weaks) leads the pro-hell faction out the door? when parishioner Jenny (a deeply moving Annie Grier) confronts Pastor Paul with rebuttal questions so heartfelt we feel their ache? when Pastor Paul’s own wife and soulmate (a magnificent and emotionally wrenching Caroline Stefanie Clay) says she doubts she can be his helpmeet in this schism he has wrought?
If our intellects have been snared in the dispute, if the arguments have engaged us, if what is at stake at all cathects our minds if not at our souls—whether or not we have a dogma in this race—who are we then?
At a time when a bullying demagogue has inflamed religious intolerance and ethnic animus with a fervor that harks back to Hitler, this particular drama in this particular venue could not be more propitious. To watch Lucas Hnath’s characters in The Christians wrestling with whether hell is a requisite for incentivizing good behavior, at Theater J—a cultural context where folks who are neither more nor less given to guilt are nevertheless sensibly indifferent to the existence of hell—is, quite simply, one of the most astounding experiences I can imagine any theater in town offering during these perilous times.