Smile Politely

It is so*

“Brothers and Sisters,
Let us pray.” 

And more than half of us bowed our heads, however briefly. 

It is possible there’s a good argument for Pavlovian conditioning… a man’s voice with a certain tone saying those words can trigger a reflex that has been built into many a Midwesterner.

There’s also a great argument for the setting, because at the Station Theatre last Thursday, the paneled walls, illuminated cross, purple plush carpet, choir loft, and the podium serving as a modern pulpit were all on point. Jaclyn Zimmerman (set designer) and Stuart Wilson (lighting designer) used their powers for good, to present scenery that could outfit any of America’s megachurches.

The Station Theatre brought us into church quite immersively, so thoroughly, that with only two short hymns and two brief lines, we bowed our heads.

It was a glorious sight.

The entire effect bordered on eerie.

And how many of us, we, the theatergoing public, how many of us are Christians? How many of us were raised in the church and wandered off? How many of us at least check the box marked “questioning” when asked what religion we are?

How many of us came to a play called The Christians just because it is at the Station, just because we trust the actors and the directors of our community?

I’d wager quite a few. I’d wager many of us were glad to see that trust was not misplaced when we left the theatre after eighty minutes of uninterrupted emotional exploration.

We trusted director Jaclyn Loewenstein to breathe life into the playwright’s words, to make flesh the ideas embodied by the plot Lucas Hnath envisioned.

That trust was well respected.

But what I want to speak about to you today… is the acting.

When we gather together, in the dark, we look to the actors to bring us to a place. A place we wouldn’t be able to achieve on our own. A place…well, a place we couldn’t even imagine if it weren’t for them, the actors.

It doesn’t matter how many of us were raised in the church. No, it does not make one iota of difference. Because I tell you that if the actors were not in it, if they had not purchased the material wholesale and added value to it and re-sold it to us, the audience, well not one of us would have bought it, would we?

Of course not. We are not fools. And we did not come to be fooled, we came to learn. We came to see what it is like to be someone else.

It does not matter what exact issue they were tackling. When a person goes to the theatre, one expects conflict. Drama. Emotion.

One expects to be moved beyond what one knows and into the realm of feeling.

The Christians achieves that goal.

The Christians takes us out of our mundane days and brings us to a place where words matter. Where communication – between business partners, between domestic partners – can alter the success of an intended boon.

Mathew Green brings to us Pastor Paul, a man who has struggled, in solitary, with an internal change so powerful that he does not know how to address it with the people closest to him. So he springs it on them. In public.

It seems to work.

It almost works.

Until it doesn’t.

Kvn Tajzea brings to us Assosciate Pastor Joshua, a partner, a man who has been led and is ready to lead, a man who gave up everything for what he thought was right, even the people closest to him. When his mentor surprises him with a profound change, it is the final push he needs.

But he reacts poorly in public.

It seems to backfire.

Until it doesn’t.

The story is, at its root, Shakespearian in nature. Even older, I’m sure you can find something in Sophocles, maybe Euripides. The surface issues do not matter, the emotions are humanity at their most primal; the plot is people at their intended best, showing their worst. A student, besting a master. Two men, two powerful men, in pain and at odds with each other.

Both men, so convincing in their battle that it was difficult for me to fight the urge to interject with Scripture of my own, just to get them to stop fighting.

Both men, both actors, committed entirely to their roles and brought their passion to display, for us to watch. For us to feel.

Lincoln Machula, the elder deacon, smiled and supported while leaning on an invisible body of legislators, all worried about the financial impact of Pastor Paul’s decision, cloaking bad news. Paul’s wife, Tania Arazi Coambs, ambiguous herself in her support or lack thereof, surprising her husband with the news that she is a person. With feelings. And the chorus: is it Baptist or Greek? It’s up to interpretation, but they both sing and mirror the action on stage.

Reading this, you may not be assuaged that this evening at church is going to feel like an evening at the theatre. Well, I cannot make you trust me. I cannot make you trust the actors or the director or the playwright or the company.

But I can tell you what I saw.

I saw the other side of an argument for a minute. I heard a prescient reference to some politics that weren’t current when they were written. I saw a broken man cry, and for a moment I wasn’t aware that he is a person I know in any other aspect of my life. I saw a very good play.

And all the people say…


The Christians plays at the Station Theatre for another two weeks — through Saturday, May 13th with all services performances at 8 p.m. You can make reservations online or by calling 217-384-4000. Tickets are $15 on Friday or Saturday, or $10 on Wednesday, Thursday, or Sunday, and the offering plate box office only accepts cash or check. 

Photos by Scott Wells.

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