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On Theater: A crisis of faith provokes 'The Christians' at Costa Mesa Playhouse

On Theater: A crisis of faith provokes 'The Christians' at Costa Mesa Playhouse
From left, Mark Tillman, Cindy Cisneros, Silvana Gargione and Peter Hilton perform in ‘The Christians’ at the Costa Mesa Playhouse. (Photo by Kerrin Serna)

It’s a simple question: Is there really a devil and hell as religions have insisted through the ages? Or are all of us (even Hitler) destined to spend eternity together in the same heavenly location?

It’s not so simple in Lucas Hnath’ s thought-provoking play “The Christians,” now on stage at the Costa Mesa Playhouse. In fact, the issue is about to split a huge church right down the middle.

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All hell breaks loose when the charismatic minister Paul (Peter Hilton) poses the theory that what we’ve been taught about Satan, to borrow a Gershwin line, “ain’t necessarily so.” The ensuing schism threatens to shatter both the church itself and the pastor’s marriage.

Under the measured direction of Michael Serna, the Costa Mesa production skillfully approximates an actual religious service. All dialogue is spoken into microphones, even the moments of conflict, augmented by periods of stress-induced silence.

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Hilton, whose calm, nonjudgmental manner sets the tone for the performance, occupies the first 15 or 20 minutes (it seems longer) delivering his keynote sermon, which seems to contradict long-held religious beliefs.

When the associate pastor Joshua (Jeff Rolle Jr.) begs to differ, opting for the more-traditional approach, things go south in a hurry. He’s joined by church elder Jay (Mark Tillman), whose presence initially seems curiously neutral.

A troubled member of the congregation (Cindy Cisneros) challenges the preacher on a gritty, down-to-earth level in perhaps the show’s most dynamic confrontation. Both Hilton and Cisneros hit their strides during this emotional moment.

Finally Paul’s wife (Silvana Gargione) has her say after waiting patiently while perched in an upstage chair through all the preceding turmoil. It is Gargione who brings the play’s focus into human terms of love and loss.

The central issue — the existence of the devil or hell — is, of course, left to the audience's judgment, since how can either case be proved beyond doubt? Playwright Hnath is merely magnifying a question that has baffled religions for centuries.

While the play is structured in the form of an actual church service, it also appeals to non-religious playgoers with its frequent transitions into emotional conflict. It might be noted that Hnath also wrote “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” which premiered last year at South Coast Repertory before its successful Broadway run.

Whatever your theory on the devil and his dwelling, “The Christians” will engage your sensibilities in this thought-provoking production at the Costa Mesa Playhouse.

If You Go

What: “The Christians”

Where: Costa Mesa Playhouse, 661 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa

When: Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. through July 15

Tickets: $18-$22

Information: (949) 650-5269 or CostaMesaPlayhouse.com

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