Phoenix: Faith, belief, and relationships tested in ‘The Christians’

By John Lyle Belden

On my own spiritual path, I have found there are generally two kinds of people in regards to faith: Those who find comfort in certainty — some things are always true and must be believed — and those who find comfort in doubt, that there are things we’ll never fully know, and we can question them and change our minds.

But, can both points of view get along in the same body of believers? That is the central dilemma of “The Christians,” the Lucas Hnath play now on stage at the Phoenix Theatre.

An American megachurch has everything going its way. It is growing and thriving with a joyful congregation and popular ministers, and it has just paid off the debts on its huge building. During the celebration, its leader, Pastor Paul (Grant Goodman) delivers a sermon that shocks his Evangelical staff and members: He no longer believes in Hell as a place of eternal punishment.

He even backs this idea up with scripture (this is an actual subject of debate in progressive churches). He is then challenged by his Associate Pastor (Ray Hutchins), who leaves and starts his own church.

The “cracks” that Paul had hoped to fix with his hopeful message instead widen as church members start an exodus to the rival congregation. This worries the megachurch board, represented by Elder Jay (Charles Goad). The congregants have their own questions, especially choir member Jenny (Kelsey Leigh Miller). And Paul’s wife, Elisabeth (Jen Johansen) has her own views on the subject.

The two types of believers find it nearly impossible to communicate, with those of certainty speaking of what is “right and wrong,” and the pastor, feeling free to doubt, speaking of what is just and merciful.

The narrative is much like a recollection by Pastor Paul — with “and then this happened”-style notes — done in the overall style of a church service with the audience as congregation (hymn lyrics are projected so we can sing along) and a choir that includes Miller, Bambi Alridge, Aaniyah Anderson, MaryBeth Walker Bailey, Adam Blevins, Caryn Flowers, Abby Gilster, Bridgette Ludlow, Marlana Haig and Dave Pelsue. Thus this show relates the hard lessons for Paul and those around him, and a parable for us all.

Goodman, Hutchins and Johansen deliver convincing performances of where each character stands on the Word. Miller and Goad ably portray people caught in the middle, each in their own way.

There is a lot to unpack when one comes away from this play, questions of faith and doctrine, of how much one should be willing to compromise, and of what happens when it’s revealed your perfect organization was too good to be true. It delivers the message without preaching, just a look at fallible humans wrestling with the answers — kinda like a Bible story.

Amen.

“The Christians” runs through April 14 on the Russell main stage at the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois St. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

 

IRT mystery with murder, mayhem and Moriarty

By John Lyle Belden

Would you recognize Sherlock Holmes if you saw him? That question is at the heart of “Holmes and Watson,” a mystery by Jeffrey Hatcher opening the 2018-19 season at Indiana Repertory Theatre.

The play is set on a remote Scottish island, several years after Holmes is believed to have died, gone over a Swiss mountain waterfall with his archrival Moriarty. (Tired of the character, author Arthur Conan Doyle offed the detective in “The Final Problem.” Bowing to public pressure, he brought Holmes back to life 10 years later.) Dr. Watson (played by Torrey Hanson) has been debunking the many impostors claiming to be the miraculously surviving Sherlock Holmes. Now, in an old fortress and lighthouse converted to an asylum, he is confronted with three.

The facility’s head, Dr. Evans (Henry Woronicz) presents a trio of distinctly different men (Michael Brusasco, Nathan Hosner and Rob Johansen), all claiming to be the detective. Having otherwise only seen an orderly (Ryan Artzberger) and the Matron (Jennifer Johansen) in the building, Watson surmises the three men are the only inmates. The mystery deepens as we discover that there has been a murder prior to Watson’s arrival, and a mysterious woman at large.

I dare not say more, so you can unravel this for yourself at the show. We tend to think of Sherlock Holmes as a singular character, but we are presented by three different but familiar archetypes: the classic Holmes of old films, the adventurous Sherlock of Benedict Cumberbatch, and the odd iconoclast reminiscent of Jonny Lee Miller in “Elementary.” We also noticed a clue – never noted by anyone on stage – that could be an insight into what’s really going on.

These amazing actors all put in excellent work. I don’t want to give individual praise for fear of giving away a secret, but suffice to say all are perfectly suited to characters where any of them may not be whom they seem.

The play is directed by former IRT artistic director Risa Brainin, who is familiar with Hatcher’s works, as well as the man himself. Robert Mark Morgan’s brilliant stage design contains sweeping layered curves, suggesting an aperture or the eye’s iris, opening and closing as the focus of the inquiry shifts.

Though not by Doyle, this drama fits right in the world he wrote for Holmes, with a tantalizing mystery worthy of the canon, complete with plot twists you’d see on an episode of “Masterpiece.”

“Holmes and Watson” runs through October 21 at the IRT, 140 W. Washington St., downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-635-5252 or visit http://www.irtlive.com.

Phoenix: A dream for better women’s lives coming true

By John Lyle Belden

OK, a feminist, a Jew and a Catholic walk into a play…

This is no joke.

In “The Pill,” a drama by Tom Horan in its world premiere run at the new Phoenix Theatre, five women play all the roles – male and female – in the story of the development of the first oral contraceptive.

In the 1950s, Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger (Constance Macy) and former suffragette Katherine McCormick (Jan Lucas) discuss the need to find an “off switch” to pregnancy, something biological that can be taken like an aspirin. Society (mostly men) tells them that such an interference with nature is not possible and not needed. Not accepting either notion, Sanger persuades Dr. Gregory Pincus (Adrianne Villareal) to work on developing a birth-control pill. Once the drug proves effective in animals, these three talk to Dr. John Rock (Jen Johansen) – over Sanger’s objections due to his Catholicism – for help in conducting human trials.

Meanwhile, Sanger receives letters from Sadie Sachs (Jenni White), a young woman who hoped for a career as a nurse, but instead goes through multiple births and miscarriages as her husband insists she continue her “wifely duties.” She is literally dying to get the “secret” that Sanger’s associates are working on.

Directed by Bill Simmons, the play is performed in the round, in the intimate space of the Phoenix’s new black-box Basile Stage (the first production performed there). There is a dreamlike aspect to the flow of the scenes and minimal furniture, with a bit of whimsy and situational humor tempered by Sanger’s hard-edged persistence and Sadie’s heartbreaking visits. It’s a factual fantasia, full of feminine energy. Each scene and vignette is accented by the ringing of a bell; it’s meaning unclear – perhaps reminiscent of an old drugstore pharmacist alerting us the prescription is ready. Still, in moment after moment, it never quite is – Ding! Ding! Ding! We need it, can we have it now?

It would be difficult to praise this cast too much – Johansen, Lucas and Macy are local legends, Villareal a savvy Phoenix veteran, and White (previously seen in Phoenix’s “Barbecue” and starring in Buck Creek Players’ “Nuts”) is incredibly talented as well. They take charge of the material, relieving Simmons of any charges of “mansplaining.” As for the male playwright, it is obvious Horan did his homework, and treats the subject and the people affected with utmost respect.

With The Pill being around and available since the 1960s, it’s too easy a half-century later to take it and its influence on society for granted. This play is important to remind us all – men and women – why this pill was needed and how difficult it was to get it even made. If progress stops, it can be rolled back, or as Sanger says, “We haven’t come this far, to only come this far.”

Performances run through June 10. The Phoenix Theatre is now located at 705 N. Illinois St., Indianapolis, just north of the Scottish Rite Cathedral downtown. Call 317-635-7529 or visit http://www.phoenixtheatre.org.

There’s a lot going on with ‘Hir’ at Phoenix Theatre

By John Lyle Belden

Talk about having issues with the “binary” – if one feels overwhelmed while viewing “Hir,” on stage through June 18 at the Phoenix Theatre, it’s because we are slammed with two dramatic themes simultaneously.

First, we are hit with the affects of trauma and abuse: After years of dominating his family and using them as punching bags, Arnold (Brad Griffith) suffered a stroke, making him barely able to talk or even think. We meet him a year later, during which his long-suffering wife, Paige (Jen Johansen), has gone the opposite way in every aspect of life. What was clean is left dirty; what was ordered is in disarray; what was put away is tossed to the floor or stuffed in an odd place. And, once forbidden to work outside the home, she has taken a job with a non-profit. What she makes there doesn’t matter, as paying bills on time was the old life. As for Arnold, he is kept in a medicated stupor and deprived of all dignity.

Into this situation comes their son, Isaac (Ben Schuetz), a discharged Marine who had the duty of picking up combatants’ body parts from the battlefield. Returning from his recent traumatic environment to his old one, all he wants is a world that makes sense.

The second theme – from which comes the play’s title – is that among the family’s changes is that the younger sibling has changed from daughter to son. Max (Ariel Laukins) has taken hormones and insists on being referred to by the pronouns “ze” and “hir” (rather than he/she or her/him). Paige is overjoyed to have something so different and new – “the future!” she declares – that she homeschools Max so that they can learn together.

The aspect of gender roles and identity takes on irony in that while Max is free to be hir-self, part of Arnold’s humiliation is being made to always wear a dress. What’s more, in the mixed-up world of this drama, Max is the most stable and certain person on the stage.

Johansen once again comes through in chewing through a meaty role. Griffith ably compensates for his role’s limited speech with his physicality. Schuetz has Isaac deal with the swirling insanity in a convincing manner, without going over the top. And Laukins makes an excellent debut.

The world of “Hir” is exaggerated and mildly bizarre, providing a lot of laughs, but this is no comedy. Trans playwright Taylor Mac’s script uses the funhouse mirror to magnify these issues, allowing us to confront what is wrong about these people’s lives without distraction by the underlying tragedy – but one way or another, it has to be dealt with.

Find the Phoenix at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair downtown, near Mass. Ave.); call 317-635-7529 or visit http://www.phoenixtheatre.org.

Review: Not an easy ‘Road’

By John Lyle Belden

The Phoenix Theatre doesn’t shy away from difficult topics, and neither does popular playwright Steven Dietz, whose newest work, “Clover Road,” occupies the Phoenix’s Basile downstairs stage through April 10.

Kate Hunter (played by Jen Johansen), a mother whose child has been missing for four years, receives word that her teenage daughter is on the compound of a cult run by the charismatic Harris McClain (Bill Simmons). We meet Kate as she arrives at a room in an abandoned motel with a man (Rob Johansen) who has been hired to abduct the girl and bring her back to the room for deprogramming. He tests her resolve and thickness of her psychic armor before leaving, then arrives later with a girl Kate doesn’t recognize (Mara Lefler). The mind games begin – for everyone involved in this story – building to an inevitably tragic conclusion.

The opening night performance made a profound impression on mental health professionals in the audience.

“I kept thinking, ‘this is very realistic,’” said Katie Sahm, a licensed clinical social worker with Counseling Associates in the Community Health network, during a post-play discussion. Lefler’s portrayal of a youth convinced of the cult leader’s apocalyptic message felt accurate, she said.

The play reveals “the vulnerability of all of us,” said Jim Bush, Director of Operations for Eskenazi Health Midtown Community Mental Health Center. The desperation to believe what they hope is true and right is shown in all the characters, aside from svengali McClain, who Simmons imbues with easy charisma.

Sahm, Bush and family therapist Dr. Barbara Riggs, with play director Courtney Sale, frequently cited a person’s need for validation as a factor in why teens like the girl in “Clover Road” find themselves in cults, gangs or with strangers they meet online. Audience discussion turned to the role of social media. At one point in the play, it’s revealed the missing girl had been in contact with a person online who told her what she wanted, or needed, to hear.

“That’s the truly frightening part,” Sahm said of the issue of defending against predators who would wield personal validation as a weapon.

The play’s themes and the expert portrayals – the Johansens and Simmons are excellent as always, and Lefler makes a brilliant Phoenix debut – deliver riveting drama, and are bound to start interesting conversations on the way home.

The Phoenix Theatre is at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair) in downtown Indy. Call 317-635-7529 or see phoenixtheatre.org.

(Review also posted at The Word.)