The room is pitch black. A small but strong chorus of voices sings a harmony-heavy hymn. Then a preacher begins to speak. The darkness helps his listeners focus entirely on the words he’s uttering.
The voice speaks to the audience about their own lives—lives that for all purposes seem happy, probably very “busy,” with too much to do and not enough time to do it. But the voice gently begins to hint at the fact that something might be missing, something less focused on the self, more focused on action. The lights go up. A foursome of friendly preachers goes out into the seats, shaking the hands of nearly every attendee there, greeting them, asking what brought them there this evening.
Forum Theatre’s Church, to be certain, captures the feeling of being in a church rather than in a black-box theatre.
Sometimes the play feels like an idealized version of church, with a ministry that’s shockingly liberal, that doesn’t judge, that doesn’t even try to convince the attendee that God is real. Other times, the atmosphere of Church feels fully foreign, taking us through fantasy sequences that are hard to connect with any strong message or relatable experience. Young Jean Lee’s play is a challenging one that’s difficult to pigeonhole into a particular viewpoint or singular religious experience. But it’s atmospheric and provocative regardless.
Church’s cast is made up of four different reverends, all with very different stories (in some cases, more than one story). The most compelling performance comes from Kevin Hasser as Reverend Jose, who manages to perfectly capture the kind of puzzling charisma that can make a certain kind of young, hip Christian leader seem alternately beguiling and a little bit creepy. Reverend Jose has a way of getting under the skin of every sort of potential believer present, whether they be, as he identifies them, one of the “failures,” “successes,” or “quitters” among us. As Reverend Blair, Blair Bowers emits a dazzling, sincere warmth, but her own story is very abstract and hard to grasp, one of Church’s more meandering dream recollections. Nora Achrati’s monologue represents the play at its most chilling. Her Reverend Nora is a woman with a brutal, morally decrepit past who felt no real remorse for her actions when she was committing violent acts (and now that she’s found God, she’s not particularly wrapped up in repenting, either). Hers is a story that pushes the idea of forgiveness to its limits.
The religious service structure director Michael Dove has created gets briefly interrupted by a loose interpretive dance routine that features each cast member laughing and playing, free and unencumbered. It’s a sequence that feels out of place, breaking up the atmosphere the show has established up to this point. Church returns to its monologue-driven structure before wrapping up with a joyous, rousing group gospel number. Though its message can be puzzling, Church gives its audience members a little more than an hour’s time to get away from their routine to think about big ideas, to give any pre-established values a second look. It’s something that often happens inside, well, a church.
Church runs through July 29 at Round House Silver Spring. Running time is approximately 65 minutes. Tickets ($15) are available via Forum Theatre’s website.