The Christians: Hell to Pay Print E-mail

 WFIT (NPR - Melbourne)

March 21, 2017

Inspiration for an actor travels down many avenues.Chris 2

Take Vanessa Kai. A number of years ago she joined a few friends from the Discovery Channel who were filming a segment for "After Dark in New York City." Their mission: bungee jumping 16 stories at 3:00 in the morning off the Manhattan Bridge that crosses the East River. It's illegal, but also an adrenaline seeker's dream.

Kai walked to the bridge's edge, said an expletive. Then jumped. Scanning the twinkling Manhattan skyline, it was a five-second freefall, tied only by her ankles, flying through the darkness toward the river. Once the chord was stretched to its limit she rocketed back skyward toward the bridge. Kai bounced up and down on the elastic cord until the energy of the fall was exhausted and then a "yank 'em up" rope was tossed down. She attached it around her waist and was hoisted back to the bridge by the other jumpers.

"I took a break from acting and found I had fallen into an uninspiring routine,” Kai recalled from her hotel in Vero Beach. “I wanted to create lifelong, lasting memories. When the moment came, I remember looking down and all I saw was a sea of blackness. And I asked myself, ‘Am I really going to do this?’ You know what, pride is a powerful thing. I needed to let go. It was an experience that nurtures you as a human and as an artist. I think it’s important to keep your spirit alive.

"Looking back it has made me more open to think about and to consider 'the new' or 'the different', and that is incredibly helpful, and necessary in my work. I guess I'm a thrill seeker. I still sky dive."

Chris 1This week Kai is performing in the thought provoking production The Christians at Vero's Riverside Theatre on the Waxlax stage through April 6. She plays Elizabeth, the loyal wife to a charismatic preacher of a mega-church, who delivers a shocking sermon in church one Sunday that God has revealed to him that there is no hell. That's right, Pastor Paul declares it doesn’t exist, only heaven.

And, Pastor Paul is catching hell.

The Christians shows what happens when one preacher radically departs from church doctrine. Shaking the foundation of the Evangelical believers, it's a story about faith and redemption and its power to unite or divide.

Pastor Paul has been moving on up. Twenty years ago, his church was nothing more than an unvarnished storefront. Now he presides over a wildly successful mega-church in a state-of-the-art sanctuary that welcomes thousands. It's a place of peace where the choir is superbly miked, the steps overflow with dahlias, with a coffee shop in the lobby, and a baptismal font as big as a swimming pool. All of the church's debts (through ill advised investments) have been erased thanks to its passionate parishioners' tithes and contributions to the weekly collection plate.

Pastor Paul learns of an honorable man who has died saving a child from a burning building. Distressed by the doctrine that unbaptized non-Christians — even the most virtuous— must tumble into the fiery pits of hell, the preacher comes to the humane conclusion that there is no hell. At least, not in the literal sense of biblical teachings.

Pastor Paul delivers a sermon that he thinks it will be greeted with joy. Instead, it's a bombshell. The conflict that emerges is a shock to both the pastor and his befuddled flock.

Recognized as one of America's new and exciting playwrights, Lucas Hnath grew up in Orlando and moved to New York where he earned a MFA at New York University's School of Arts in 2002. The Christians was produced at the Humana Festival in 2014 and premiered Off-Broadway at the Playwrights Horizon the following year. His play Red Speedo won the 2016 Obie Award for Playwriting.

“My mother is an ordained minister, so I grew up, certainly, in that world," said Hnath in an interview last year." And, I felt there was something missing in how Christianity tends to be represented onstage. Far too often it’s satirical... I did not figure out how to write the play until I realized that the play is not about believers versus nonbelievers; it’s about a doctrinal controversy within the faith.”

The play takes place on the large stage of the church, dominated by a massive cross in artistic director Allen Cornell's austere set. Ryan George gives a powerful performance as associate pastor Joshua, fiery in his convictions, who pushes back against the pastor from the beginning.

The cast is rounded out by Mitch Tebo and Jewel Blakeslee. The picture of warmth and reason as a supportive but cautious elder of the church, Tebo slyly approaches Pastor Paul with the Board of Elders’ concerns, financially and spiritually. Blakeslee is a single mother who has put all of her faith and trust in the church. Anxious and conflicted, she is plagued by questions she can’t answer and feeling the judgment of the hard liners.

Among Kai's credits are nine films, including the upcoming film Behind the Mirror and the television series Orange is the New Black and Gotham. She plays Elizabeth, a strong woman who loves her husband dearly but is also struggles with his beliefs. She is hurt that her husband never confided his doubts in her, a skepticism of hell she doesn’t share. She finally shouts to Paul, your “magnificence has worn off.” To protect her daughter from the lack of damnation, she must quit their now-unholy home.

"It's a wonderful role that has so many different layers, my relationship with God, with my husband and the congregation," Kai explained. "We all feel betrayed, challenged by someone we love and trust. I hope the play inspires great conversations within the Vero community. Especially in today's world it's important to have conversations on different points of view. I think the audience might be shocked initially, but open to what the play has to say."

Photos courtesy of Riverside Theatre

 

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