Brilliant Production of “The Christians” restores faith in live theater

David Cecsarini is Pastor Paul in The Christians

Welcome back Next Act!

Welcome back David Cecsarini?

And for God’sSake….WELCOME BACK THEATER!!!!

Mr.Cecsarini, who has never met a social issue he doesn’t like, has created a real piece of enthralling theater in the brilliant production of “The Christians,” the provocative play by Lucas Hnath.

In just over 80 minutes Next Act takes a deep dive into the world of doubt that threatens to overcome a megachurch presided over by Pastor Paul (Mr. Cecsarini).

This is a play about faith, about faith shaken to its very roots and about the fallout when faith is replaced by doubt and that doubt is then replaced by another certainty.

There have been a variety of online productions as theater companies have tried to cope with the pandemic. Some have been better than others.

This production from Next Act has set a high bar that all other companies would do well to attempt to reach. 

With a production filmed at the Gethsemane United Methodist Church in Pewaukee, this is a full-fledged magnetic production that is equally powerful both in medium and in message. 

Timothy Moder is the videographer and editor of this production and he has created a seamless film that is absolutely gripping. There are no zoom boxes here. This is a fully developed film, simply set but full of the complexities that sometimes accompany religious faiths. 

Pastor Paul has built a megachurch and has finally retired the debt required to construct his building. And he announces that fact in a sermon that shocks his congregation as he affirms his disbelief in the concept of hell. He has run contrary to everything his flock believes.

The schism is so great that his associate pastor, Andrew Muwonge, leaves his post, a single mother congregant, Emily Vitrano, wonders if she has been sold a bill of goods, and a church elder, Rick Richter, is sorrowed at the fallout from the sermon.

But it is best left to the pastor’s wife, an always transcendent Marti Gobel, to best explain the fallout from a sermon that has shaken her to her very core. 

In the final scene between the two, she laments her loss, talking about her husband, but she could just as easily be talking about her faith in Christianity. 

“I wish I didn’t.
I wish I didn’t like you,
I wish I didn’t find you so attractive,
I wish I didn’t want you here in bed beside me,
I wish I didn’t think that you’re so smart
and kind
and good,
and I wish I didn’t find you so magnificent.
Because if I didn’t feel all those ways
it would be so easy to —
I’m worried that we won’t be together forever,
and I’m worried that it’ll be my fault,
and God will say — when it comes time to say the things he’ll say —
“Why did you fail him?”
“Why did you let him fall away?”
“Why did you not do everything you could to keep him from falling away?”
And so this is me, doing everything I can do,
but really, I’m afraid to do everything that I could do,
but I know I have to do everything I can do,
because I want to be with you forever.
By staying with you, I am making it easier.
Aren’t I?
It would be harder if I weren’t here.”

Mr. Cecsarini’s cast creates characters that are full of depth and besieged by the tortuous entanglements of doubt. Mr. Muwonge brings he courage of his convictions to the stage and Mr. Richter is believably conflicted about his position on the board.

Ms. Vitrano, who we don’t see on Milwaukee stages enough, captures both the spirit and the power of a young woman, a single mother, suddenly finding all that has held her up beginning to collapse. Her questions are pointed although her reluctance to ask them is powerful.

And Ms. Gobel and Mr. Cescarini, as the power couple, proves once again that putting two great actors on a stage together is a sure fire recipe for magic. 

“The Christians” is running now online and you can get tickets at ww.nextact.org. 

If you love the arts, and who doesn’t, this is a place to start coming back to the world of theater. It’s not live, but it is very much alive.

Production credits: Director Edward Morgan; Videographer/Editor, Timothy Moder; Costume Design, Amy Horst; Properties Manager, Heidi Salter; Music Director, DAvid Bonofiglio; Production Director/Sound Engineer, Michael Van Dreser; Stage Manager Jessica Connelly; Production photos, Timothy Moder.

Cast: Pastor Paul, DAvid Cecsarini; Elizabeth, Marti Gobelm Joshua, Andrew Muwonge; Jenny, Emily Vitrano; Elder Jay, Rick Richter Church choir: Lachrisa Grandberry, Raven Dockery, Rana Roman.

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