In August of 1999, the 30th to be exact, Deborah Staples – in front of so many of our dear friends, family members and colleagues – agreed to step into a lifetime partnership with me.
The wedding celebration was held at Wintergreen, “the ski hill,” on the south bank of the Wisconsin River across from Spring Green. Naturally it was held on a Monday, since Deborah was in the midst of her APT season and Next Act was in rehearsals for HAUPTMANN. This caused us to delay the typical post-wedding honeymoon until well into October, when I had the bright idea that visiting Glacier National Park would be just the thing.
OK, besides the snow, the possible presence of our grizzly bear friends and the complete lack of iconic bighorn sheep scampering across mountaintops, it wasn’t too bad. Looking back, that singular, solitary blue grouse sitting on the forest floor as we hiked by, bear-whooping, was pretty impressive, if only for its impudent, beady-eyed stare. That’s when Deborah, in one of her first executive actions in the partnership, established the mutual goal of a real honeymoon to be taken in the not-too-distant future.
Well, two years later, it was all planned. We headed for a European adventure just weeks after the terrorist attacks on New York, D.C. and Pennsylvania. Never a dull moment with us. It must be said, though, that throughout Holland, France and Italy, we really didn’t have any sense of heightened danger during the trip, other than the presence of Italian soldiers sporting their automatic rifles at the train stations. Of course there were still the usual dangers of pickpockets, tourist prices and an overabundance of museums and cathedrals.
One such cathedral is in Florence: it’s one of the largest churches on earth. It took 140 years to build, and much longer to completely finish the façade. No doubt, many readers have been to the enormous Duomo al Firenze, with its tri-color white, pink and green marble cladding, gorgeous vaulted ceilings and the third tallest dome in the world, topping out at 375.5 feet above the cobbles below. Combined with its innumerable artworks, soaring dimensions and layer upon layer of history – both religious and architectural – the building is truly a testament to the determination, ambition, vision, engineering, craftsmanship and faith of its human creators.
As you stand in the nave (the center where the two main structures cross) you can look up to see the dome’s interior, starting about 100 feet above your own. Covering this massive, eight-sided structure is a fresco painting which depicts The Last Judgment, as described in Christian tradition. From that far away, you can tell that there’s a lot going on in the six rings of figures and events. But it’s not until you climb the hundreds of steps taking you up to the walkway around the dome’s base that you see the enormity of the work. It covers 38,750 square feet; that’s a canvas the length of a football field and 129 feet tall.
Not being well-versed in Christian and Catholic theology, I can only guess at all the stories these artists have told – and are still telling – with their monumental work. But in the lowest ring of figures and goings-on just above our upturned heads, there are some unmistakable images of a classic, fiery-furnace and brimstone-slingin’ Hell. Nasty, snarling beasts are busily chasing their wretched prey toward molten caves. What can only be demons are pouring burning liquid down the throats of hapless individuals marked for a roasting eternity. The roiling backdrop of intense reds and yellows, punctuated by torturing monsters and grotesquely twisted faces of doomed souls, give the impression that the heat is intense, intolerable, and impossibly everlasting.
And this fate, many Christians believe, awaits all those who do not come to acknowledge Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. And they don’t just mean other Christians; they mean all mankind.
In a 2015 interview, playwright Lucas Hnath said, “I knew I wanted to write a play about a very large church, because as a child, I went to a very large church.” In his play THE CHRISTIANS, Hnath has fulfilled that wish. He takes us to Pastor Paul’s mega-church one auspicious Sunday, where Paul delivers, not so much a sermon, but a change of mind and heart to his congregation of thousands. Paul’s radical change in philosophy runs squarely into absolutist doctrine already in place. The conflict brings upon the church an extreme test of belief and loyalty, and results in a schism with serious repercussions for all involved. Hnath comments: “When you have people who are absolutists coming together in a play, it becomes a testing ground for ideas.”
I believe I’ve mentioned before that my time in the pews at Brookfield United Methodist Church during the 1960s did not result in my adherence to the faith. (Perhaps the only way in which this son has disappointed his mom.) Nevertheless, I find the ideas in this play completely engaging, and further, the personal crises that characters are grappling with, humanly compelling. Pastor Paul’s revelation is deeply felt and rendered with eloquence, but as a convert to a new idea, he is blind to the damage and hurt he will cause. Joshua, the Associate Pastor, pushes back in front of the entire congregation, and the debate becomes a public display and competition for power. The drama is firmly-rooted in Hnath’s “testing ground.”
In that 2015 interview, Hnath was asked how the play was going over, among Christians and non-Christians alike. He said he was careful to not make the play about, “Do you believe in Christianity or not,” but about an internal, doctrinal argument which, in effect, brings reluctant audience members inside the belief rather than letting them sit outside of it. Hnath quips, “Not that agnostics or atheists convert when they watch the play, but that’s where the stakes are.”
The “stakes” center upon the question of the existence of Hell. Christian doctrine holds that questioning the existence of hell is heresy, and the Inclusion Doctrine (all are saved) is simply the same heresy by a new name. One current champion of Inclusion is Bishop Carlton Pearson, an African-American Baptist who, over many years, had formed a huge church in Tulsa, OK, in the 1990s. Pearson had a similar change of heart to Hnath’s Pastor Paul, and though this is not Pearson’s story, his is perhaps the most well-known incidence of a crisis in belief which took down an institution.
One final thought: at the outset, Hnath’s characters are absolutists, and yet through the course of the conflict, the search for progress and peace with one another leads them to introspection, self-doubt, and a more generous place of understanding the other. In the end, there is nothing absolute in the ideas, or the people. There is only questioning, hope and love. What a terrific play.
I’m left with this question: I wonder whether THE CHRISTIANS would have shaken up the Florentine world beneath that massive dome, all those centuries ago? I suppose much would have depended upon the translation: Italian or Latin?
See you at the (video) theatre!