Catch ‘The Christians’ now through May 19 at Bristol Riverside Theatre
By Samantha Bambino
Energy was buzzing at Bristol Riverside Theatre on the evening of Thursday, May 2. It was opening night of The Christians, the final production in its 2018–2019 season, and BRT regulars and newbies alike flocked from the Wharf and Mill Street, excited for a night of entertainment.
But upon entering the main theater space, the usual pre-show chattering quieted to a low murmur as patrons settled into their seats and took in the sight before them. The familiar BRT stage had been transformed into a stunning church, complete with marble walls, several massive, glowing white crosses, and a lectern. As an unseen organist played traditional hymns, it was easy to feel compelled to sit quietly, hands reverently folded.
At 7:30 p.m., a 30-member choir took the stage, erupting in the catchy tune “God’s Unchanging Hand.” By the second verse, most of the audience could be spotted clapping and singing along to this song they were unfamiliar with mere moments before.
The choir was then joined by the main cast of show — Anthony Lawton as Pastor Paul, Akeem Davis as Associate Pastor Joshua, Dan Kern as Elder Jay, and Susan McKey as Elizabeth.
For anyone who didn’t do research prior to purchasing tickets to The Christians, it was easy to assume the play, written by Lucas Hnath, is the second coming of Sister Act. But this is far from the case.
The Christians centers around Pastor Paul and the sermon he preaches that shakes the entire foundation of his congregation’s beliefs. In short, he tells his loyal parishioners that there is no Satan and fiery pits of hell. Earth is actually hell, all of humanity is the devil, and everyone — even Hitler — goes to heaven and has their sins absolved.
Lawton, who has been acting in Philadelphia for 27 years, does an outstanding job at portraying Pastor Paul. Such a powerful sense of passion is exuded behind every word that even the most devout Christians in the audience can at least see his point of view.
Of course, after dropping such a controversial revelation on his congregation, things start to go south for Pastor Paul. Congregant Jenny, played by K. O’Rourke, questions the timing of his sermon, which conveniently comes after the newly-built fortress of a church is out of debt. He also loses the support of Associate Pastor Joshua, who sets out to open his own church based on the scriptures of the Bible.
Davis is a standout in the cast, especially during his final scene in The Christians, during which he explains to Paul why he so firmly believes in hell. When Joshua’s non-Christian mother died, he saw true fear in her eyes as she entered the darkness, rather than the light of eternal heaven. Davis’ emotions are raw and heartfelt, making for arguably the most riveting and memorable moment in the production.
Another standout is McKey, who plays Pastor Paul’s wife in her BRT debut. Despite not having much of a role throughout the first half of The Christians, sitting quietly on the “altar” while chaos ensues around her, she comes with a vengeance, not only questioning her husband’s sanity, but the fate of their marriage.
Admittedly, The Christians is far from a feel-good play. It sheds light on the financial corruption of the church, makes evident the fact that pastors are not, in fact, always the most genuine individuals, and presents audiences with head-scratching theories about religion and life-after-death.
But through it all, one thing remains a constant source of enjoyment — the choir. Much like the Oompa Loompas in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the singers dive into song at strategic intervals, giving theater-goers a mental breather from Pastor Paul’s drama.
Comprised of mostly non-professional locals who attended an open audition in March, the group includes Andrew DiSilio, a Conwell-Egan Catholic High School student; Ginny Fairweather, a 30-year Bristol Township School District employee; Barbara Mulvey, a longtime BRT usher; and A. Scott Meiser, a Cairn University graduate who can be found whipping up lattes at Calm Waters Coffee Roasters.
The Christians is on stage at Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe St., Bristol, through May 19. Performances run Wednesday through Sunday. For more information, call 215–785–0100, visit brtstage.org or stop by the box office. ••
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org