PROVO — Everybody wins with the new series of staged readings called Contemporary Voices, mounted by the Theatre and Media Arts Department at BYU. The readings give students a low-risk environment where they can cut their teeth into juicy new roles, and Provo audiences get an inexpensive opportunity to sample fine modern plays. If the first evening’s reading of The Christians is any indication, Contemporary Voices could be a hidden gem in the local theatre scene.
Written by Lucas Hnath, The Christians tells the story of charismatic Protestant megachurch pastor Paul, who gives an earth-shattering sermon that alters one of the church’s fundamental doctrines. A schism forms, and although the dissenters are a small proportion at first, Paul’s church gradually bleeds away more members. In time, Paul holds fast to his beliefs, but he loses more than just some congregants.
Joey Wright plays Paul with the self-assuredness needed to portray a man who has been preaching to a growing congregation for two decades. Wright has a natural ear for the rhetoric of a sermon, and it is easy to believe that Wright is a knowledgeable pastor. Wright’s performance grows increasingly interesting as Paul’s life spins out of control but the character works to maintain his composure. Wright imbues Paul with dignity, which keeps the play from becoming a full-blown tragedy and allows me to respect Paul at the end of the show, even though I disagree with his doctrines.
Hnath’s script is packed with one compelling scene after another, and every cast member takes advantage of it. Jessica Ashby gives a tender performance as Jenny, a single mother who struggles with her church’s new doctrine. Ashby’s nervous body language conveys Jenny’s meekness, and her distress and nervousness at confronting Paul in front of the (diminished) congregation increased the dramatic tension. Julia Rowley plays Paul’s wife, Elizabeth, with confidence. The character is not an easy one to play; Elizabeth must confront Paul as a spiritual leader, while still demonstrating spousal love for him. Rowley threads this needle well and creates a deep character in a surprisingly short time. Thomas Petrucka and Tommy Brown play associate pastor Joshua and church elder Jay, respectively. Both men are engaging as they discuss what their characters have to lose by Paul’s sudden change in doctrine. The stakes are high for each character, and the urgency and distress in Petrucka’s and Brown’s voices make it impossible to turn away from their scenes.
In addition to pulling these engrossing performances from his cast, director Adam Houghton created simple staging that emphasized the growing isolation Paul felt as the play progressed. Houghton also made the interesting choice of having the actors deliver all their dialogue to the audience, which made the characters’ impassioned pleas to one another more poignant. The preaching to the audience was particularly effective, and at several points throughout the evening, I felt like I was a member of Paul’s congregation.
There is something special about a well crafted staged reading. Without the accoutrements of most productions (e.g., fancy costumes, a set, a lighting design), this reading of The Christians focuses the audience’s attention on the dialogue, the actors, and the message. And those are what matter most for a thought-provoking night of theatre.
A departure from the normally classics-heavy seasons that BYU has mounted in the past, Contemporary Voices presents staged readings of modern plays — all written within the past decade. If The Christians is any indication, then Contemporary Voices is a welcomed addition to the BYU theatre season. I hope it becomes an annual tradition.