- 38th Humana Festival of New American Plays
For many theatre professionals around the country, the Humana Festival of New American Plays is an annual rite of spring. Each March and April, like swallows to Capistrano, they flock to Louisville, Kentucky, for one of two Visitors’ Weekends. In 2014, they were joined by members of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), who held their annual conference during the festival. Playwright Lauren Gunderson was invited to address the assembled reviewers in a keynote “Perspectives on Criticism” speech; in her remarks, she struck a tone of rapprochement, refusing “to accept that there is an inherent antagonism between critics and theatre-makers.” She called on critics to claim their subjectivity, to embrace their roles as ambassadors, advocates, and “cheerleaders” for theatre, and to raise their “awareness of the new play ecology” in which, for example, a negative review of a new [End Page 129] play can prevent it from ever reaching a second production. “We are together and we are in public,” Gunderson concluded, “and that public co-presence is responsible for the public coherence of theatre.”
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With Gunderson’s charge in mind, I remind readers that the festival is a new-play incubator. The generous production values lavished on these world premieres make it easy to forget that they are works in progress still trying to find their own logic, identity, and timbre. The 38th Humana Festival featured five new full-length plays at different stages of development. The most thrilling and memorable of the lot was Lucas Hnath’s The Christians, which takes place in the handsome, wood-paneled sanctuary of a contemporary mega-church in America’s heartland. What started as a humble storefront operation has grown into a “massive corporation” with a dedicated congregation of thousands, all thanks to the charismatic Pastor Paul and his protégé and “spiritual son,” Associate Pastor Joshua. To mark the day that the church has paid off its longstanding debt, Paul delivers a sermon that triggers a schism in the church and announces a radical change in its doctrine, one that goes to the core of Christian theology and leads to his downfall.
The play derived much of its theatrical impact from its presentation as an actual church service— with an organist and robed choir of two-dozen parishioners singing hymns, two large projection screens overhead displaying pastoral images and Bible quotes, and a row of cushioned armchairs along the front where the church elders and the pastor’s wife, Elizabeth, sat and listened. The action began with rousing church music and then Pastor Paul’s controversial sermon, delivered straight out to the audience in the calm, reassuring tones of a minister confident in his message and the allegiance of his flock. This extended opening was more liturgical than dramatic, and even as the play’s central conflict took hold, the action was presented with the decorum of a church service. This treatment even included an argument late in the play between the pastor and his wife; ostensibly, the scene takes place while they are lying next to each other in bed late at night, but onstage they were seen seated next to each other in their church clothes facing out and leaning forward to speak into microphones in much the same moderate tone as all that had come before.
This performance conceit might have backfired as an ironic gimmick were it not handled in pitch-perfect [End Page 130] fashion by director Les Waters, scene designer Dane Laffrey, and a strong cast led by Andrew Garman as Paul and Linda Powell as Elizabeth. The genuine sincerity of the entire production, and in particular the depiction of characters with profound devotion to their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, challenged the more secular or irreligious members of the audience (including me) to accept the play on its own evangelical terms and identify with figures whose values are otherwise foreign and...