Yes, the name of the play is The Christians. Yes, it was written by young, emerging playwright Lucas Hnath, and it has seen productions in such hotbeds of liberal indoctrination as London, New York, Austin and Los Angeles. Yes, it is year two of the Donald Trump interregnum, and the kind of Christians that Hnath’s 2015 play is about, at least in an ongoing production at the Costa Mesa Playhouse, are the kind of evangelicals who flock to megachurches and played an enormous role in getting that piece of bloviating idiocy elected.
But ask director Michael Serna whether this is a play that puts organized Christianity or any type of organized religion in the cross-hairs of liberal rhetorical venom, and you get a surprising answer. “Not at all,” he says. “This isn’t a play that casts any kind of judgment. If you’re a devout Christian who thinks [any kind of staged theater production in 2018] is going to offend you, it won’t happen—but also, if you have no religious beliefs at all, there is something for you.”
Rather than a diatribe against religious faith or a lampoon of believers or non-believers, Hnath’s play, says Serna, is more about getting to the heart of what faith is and what happens when one’s belief in that faith might be threatened.
With that said, it’s impossible to stage a play with a title such as this in a time such as this without recognizing its real-world backdrop.
“I am not a person who goes to church, but with so much [debate] about faith and evangelicals in our politics these days, I’m fascinated by it, by a world that drives so much of our politics and culture,” Serna says.
While the script neither calls for a specific locale or even religion for the church at its heart, Serna has opted to set it in an evangelical megachurch in Orange County and has followed the script’s dictum that the entire theater should feel as if you’re walking into a church. “I was shocked when I saw the production at the [Mark Taper] Forum a few years ago,” he recalls. “I fell in love with the play’s structure and the style of what [Hnath] was trying to accomplish. I was kind of shocked that I had never seen a play where you walk into a venue and it’s actually a church. Which makes kind of sense because there’s more than a little church-like atmosphere to any theater. But he takes that and creates that sense, inside the theater, something we’ve tried really hard to emulate with this show.”
The play follows the saga of Pastor Paul, who has presided over a church that began life as a modest storefront but now draws thousands of people. Yet he’s been wrestling with his own dark night of the soul: He is tired of preaching about the literal existence of hell. And in attempting to preach a more secularized form of gospel that has helped to build his church into an enormous institution, he creates a schism in everything from the congregation to his marriage.
“It’s more of a workplace drama than anything else, I’d say,” says Serna, who took over this year as artistic director of the Costa Mesa Playhouse, which has held court in that city for 35 years. “And a personal drama, as the toll it takes on his marriage is examined, as is the conflict with his spiritual sons. Yet, it’s a larger cultural drama as well, but really it’s about individuals, and the decisions we make and their consequences.”
Serna, 44, was asked late last year to lead the playhouse’s creative vision. It has long been a community theater with a programming aesthetic a cut above OC’s other community theaters. It has staged a diverse slate of adventurous musicals and straight plays, as well as the occasional new piece. Serna, who received his MFA from Cal State Fullerton and has acted and directed across the county since the early 2000s, is committed to sustaining that vision.
“I think this place has something going for it that puts it above other community theaters,” he says. “The location, the facility we have, and the board the past couple of years has been very bold in bringing in unique musicals and the kind of plays that some other theaters may not do. I really think it’s trying to raise the bar of what Orange County audiences might be willing to take, and I like being part of that.”
The Christians at Costa Mesa Playhouse, 661 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa, (949) 650-5269; costamesaplayhouse.com. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through July 15. $20-$22.