The Christians – (Review, Jan 2019)

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If you’re reading this review, there exists a high likelihood that you are conscious of a seemingly devastating and divisive trend in America over the past decade or so that has pitted us against each other when topics such as faith and politics arise. Lucas Hnath’s play, The Christians, under the direction of First Presbyterian Theater’s Managing Artistic Director Thom Hofrichter, examines these exact issues and invites the audience to move toward a higher acceptance of one another’s beliefs in hopes of avoiding irreparable harm and division. In his director’s notes, Hofrichter focuses on a line from Pastor Paul during his shocking sermon: “I have a powerful urge to communicate with you, but I find the distance between us insurmountable.” Clearly, the selection of this play is designed to encourage spirited discourse and discourage negativity or the outright abolishment of communication and debate.

Upon entering the theater, audiences are immersed in a church setting. Though there is no direct interaction with the performers, there is a distinct sensation of witnessing the internal and external conflicts among the characters. This unnamed holy house begins its service with a few verses of traditional songs which clearly serve as a welcoming device to that week’s parishioners. Once the music ends, however, the tone of the room drastically shifts based on the shocking rhetoric within the trusted words of the church’s pastor. The shock that the church’s attendees and audience experience force each of us to reflect on our own practices and beliefs, a common theme found in this year’s selections at First Presbyterian Theater.

Starring in this play is Austin Berger, an FPT mainstay who most recently appeared in last season’s production of Faith Healer. As Pastor Paul, Berger’s authentic rendition of a man of faith who is at a moral crossroads exhibits the inner turmoil that countless humans have likely wrestled with throughout history. His character has spent decades building the trust of his flock and associates, and Berger’s genuine performance as the chief pastor of what has become a mega-church provides an opportunity for viewers to understand more closely how even the holiest of us struggles with certain unanswered questions.

Riley Newsome, a graduate from Huntington University, plays the youthful associate Pastor Joshua, a man whose own checkered history is at the crux of the conflict between him and his superior. Newsome’s performance is equally convincing, especially as we see him evolve from the initial shocking sermon toward his role within religion in later scenes. Through long monologues, Newsome presents a firm counterpoint to the positions that Berger’s Pastor Paul creates at the outset.

Filling out the cast are David McCants, as a church elder named Jay; Alora Nichole, as an active congregant named Jenny; and Jennifer Poiry, as Pastor Paul’s wife Elizabeth.  Though a silent character during the church’s public services, McCants offers a stunning amount of impact with his deliberate and grave expressions of concern as a representative of the church’s board of directors. In one of the play’s most poignant scenes, McCants and Berger present one of the play’s most crucial themes: a challenge to traditional thought and practice found within the church. In her role as a faithful parishioner, Nichole does a beautiful job in vocalizing the concerns of Paul’s doubters and, perhaps, many non-believers in a succinct, yet genuinely nervous fashion. Lastly, Poiry’s tremendous exhibition as the loyal wife creates even more depth of conflict for the troubled pastor as the play unfolds.

Though there is no intermission, The Christians offers much to unpack in its ninety- minute running time. The mastery of this story is in its unique personification of our own concerns with communication among one another, and this cast offers a stirring amount of tension as the plot develops. Audience members of strong religious faith can gain just as much as those who have lengthy lists of questions and doubts. While placing the dilemma within the holy walls of a house of God, it seems clear that the play’s central message is not limited to those of faith. More significantly, the challenges and rhetoric exchanged on stage here can bridge our seemingly deteriorating and divided culture.

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November Fifth and It’s So Far Away

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Brittle leaves dance

Through Everytown and scatter

Little League infields

Where ghosts and memories steal signs and bases.

Gray takes over at First;

Charging Second, the first flakes drown mounds,

Rounding Third, the deepest snow

And lowest degrees,

And during all these months ahead,

Home is where we tend to be.

Highlights reel inside me–inside us–

That 2-2 count,

An insurance run in the ninth,

The unmatched tension of extra innings on the road.

The

fan-favorite

make-up

day-night

double-dip.

We strain to recall single games, plays, scores,

But it all seems to be a rushed mirage now,

A complex continuum

Where the wisest men around

are outfitted like the outfielders.

Each player, each team,

And each fan

From box seat to bleacher bum

Wringing hands for October rings.

Rookies–babies to some–

Will breathe

Big League Chew in their most dormant moments.

Our noses fill with the scents of old cigars and fresh popcorn.

The game hibernates

And the players and specatators–

All of us Brothers, Mothers, Fathers, Sisters–

Invoke the patience of a September call-up

And trust that their eyes will find the lush green,

The damp brown, and the crisp white lines

That must hoist us through this chilly half of the year.

 

Just Wait

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Her:  Phew!  I’m exhausted.  You wouldn’t believe my day.

Him:  Hi there.  Welcome home.

Her:  Did you get the mail?

Him:  ….

Her:  Can you put down your phone and answer me?

Him:  Sorry.  What?

Her:  The mail.

Him:  No.  I was going to–

Her:  I’ll get it.

Him:  …

Her:  What a surprise.  Bills, bills, and more bills.  What did you do today?

Him:  Hm?  Oh.  Not much.

Her:  Did you look for a j– C’mon.  I’m trying to talk with you.  Can you stop playing that game?

Him:  I’m not playing a game.

Her:  Did you find anyone hiring?

Him:  Um…I tried.

Her:  You’re lying.

Him:  …

Her:  You can’t even look at me, can you?  I know you’re lying and you just want me to stop nagging you about getting a job, don’t you?  Fine.  Ya know what, fuck this.

Him:  Did you hear something?

Her:  What?

Him:  I think I heard something.

Her:  Don’t you dare pick up that phone!

Him:  Just a second.

Her:  Goddammit!

Him:  Please don’t!  I just called–!

Her:  Who the fuck are you calling?

Him:  Oww!  What are you doing!  Stop it!

Her:  You love this phone so much, why don’t you fucking shove it up your ass!?

Him:  Wait.  Please!

Her:  We’re fucking done.  You know that?  I just can’t anymore with this bullshit!

Him:  Don’t leave me!

Her:  Don’t you dare try to fucking find me!

Him:  (into phone) Hello?

Voice:  Sir?  Yes, we’re here.  This is the national suicide prevention hotline, and we’ve been listening for several minutes now.  Can you tell me your name?

2012 Review, or Most Cliche Blog Title Possible

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Another year is ending.  2012 has been pretty awesome to say the least.  We learned of our pregnancy in early December 2011, but we didn’t say anything to family members until after we’d been to the doctor.  In January, Katy was around 10 weeks along, so we made the tour of family’s homes to relay the exciting news.  During these visits, two things happened:  most people stated their previous suspicions of the upcoming addition to our family, and my mom gave me a high-five coupled with her pleasure with the fact that I was going to become a father before I turned 40.

 

Prologue to This Journey

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*Note: I’m moving the material from my Google Pages Blog to this blog. It turns out that it’s senseless to attempt to maintain two types of blogs.

February 20, 2018

I’m struggling already with the best way to start.  This is the exact issue I discuss with my students and their writing assignments.  “Don’t worry about how it begins yet,” I say. “Write the body first.” That might be useful for formal academic writing, but this is not exactly that style of prose.  No. I’ll be posting a lot about teaching, I’m sure, but this blog is meant to be about my decision to begin a doctoral program at the age of forty-two.

So, here’s the background that I feel is relevant.  No names have been changed, as far as you know. I finished my bachelor’s in December of 1998 and began teaching in a public school in August of the following year.  For a couple years, that was my life. I got married somewhere in the middle, but that’s for another discussion. I began a master’s degree in 2001 or 2002 and eventually finished in December of 2007.  Near the end of my coursework, I took a class on American drama with [unnamed professor]. He was one of the best instructors I ever had, but one evening–I think prior to our two-hour discussion and evaluation of A Streetcar Named Desire–he answered a classmate’s inquiry about her consideration of applying for a Ph. D.

“Why the hell would anyone want to get their Ph. D. in literature these days?” he scoffed.  

Scoffed.  Yes. He was a scoffer.  

I can never know if his voice inflection was meant to be advisory, sarcastic, or some confusing combination.  I will tell you, famous reader, that I took it to my aortic pump.

Mentally, I shut down the notion of a doctoral program around that time of my life.  I was inching toward completing the master’s, anticipating a meager raise, and was set–at 28 or 29–to do the same job at the same school for the next thirty to forty years.

The question I ask myself now is, “Why the hell would I not seek out a Ph. D. in literature?”

You may be reading this and you can hear my voice in it.  You know me, and you know how much I truly loved Shakamak, even though, like any school or job, it had its flaws.  But my time was done there. I taught for seventeen years, and I cannot continue typing without reminding myself and informing you that they were the school that chose me.  They started my career.

 

[Activity 2] “The Hell is This?”

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The following is just Steps 1 and 2 from the previous writing activity. We did this in my graduate fiction writing workshop this week (Jan. 16, 2019).  Here’s what I came up with in my 5 minutes:


Shiny. That’s what drew me close. And as I approached it, my own image enlarged – me walking, reaching toward my own outstretched hand. Two gaping depths at the top. My investigative fingers soon found sharp metal strips along the inside. I withdrew them and peered in to discover thick metal rods–one in each slot, parallel to the tabletop.  Carefully, I dip my fingers in again to learn that each rod is bouncy. I turn the reflective round box and find a black spindle encircled with miniature lines and symbols.  Finally, I see a lever on the side’s center, which I learn enables me to lower the metal rods inside to a locked position.

Story Construction Idea

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Here’s something that came up just yesterday in my Creative Writing class.

  1. create a list of 12-15 objects found around the house (no humans or animals, preferably)
  2. choose one and write for five minutes describing the object as if you’ve never seen it before.
  3. Create a list of themes from books, stories, poems, movies, and TV shows that appeal to you  (e.g. love conquers all, coming-of-age, good over evil; empathy; challenges of prejudice, etc.)
  4. Now, brainstorm a potential plot by beginning with a theme and including the chosen object for #2 as a symbol

Example:

household item – mousetrap

theme – value of integrity

Plot idea – a nervous boy wants to try out for the HS football team but knows he’s likely to be bullied by bigger, stronger kids.  After being victimized, he places a bunch of mousetraps throughout the locker room to get back at them.

options—the plan fails but he’s not found out;  the plan fails and he’s eventually caught; the play succeeds but the other boys don’t change; the plan succeeds but the boy is caught and expelled for bullying/attacking his classmates…

I don’t know…but it’s something, right?

 

Being Photographed (Flash Nonfiction)

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In the mid-1980s, my grandmother encouraged my brother and mother to accompany her to her church service each Sunday morning, and my older brother and I stretched our imaginations wider than ever in constructing a reason for us not to attend, especially once we both reached double-digit ages. In the fall, the church would invited families to have a portrait taken for the upcoming year’s membership book. For normal families, dressing up on a random Tuesday night and driving to church for a photograph is more than likely a relatively simple feat. My brother and I, however, were unfamiliar with that level of normalcy.

I can remember waiting in line from the middle of the building to where the photographer had set up camp in a partitioned-off segment of a rec room on the west side of the church. This room was usually reserved for adult Bible study meetings (which my mom attended, I’m now convinced, strictly to award herself sixty full minutes of being free from her sons’ constant irritations) and the annual Christmas tree decoration stations led by adult members of the church who had accumulated a seemingly endless amount of pipe cleaners and cotton balls. Any other time, the partition boards were squeezed off to the sides, leaving only long metal coat racks that lined the perimeter of the room. Anyway, while in line, my brother became restless after about seventeen seconds, so, contrary to our mother and grandmother’s wishes to “shush” or “just be still”, he filled the void by creating reasons to make me laugh. No specific joke or comment comes to mind, but I want to say the range varied from an unknown member’s loud outfit or obscene use of perfume to corny puns that a lot of nine-year-olds think are hilarious (e.g. “Steve, I don’t think that jacket suits him.”)  These jokes would build and build as we eased closer to the threshold of the makeshift studio. The photographer was always a bespectacled man who by the time we reached him had begun sweating, draped his blazer over a chair, and kept over-smiling, apparently to negate the stress of his job. Simple instructions such as “Face to the left” or “Chin up” were far more than I could handle by that point as well. Any reference to turning my cheeks forced my brother to remind me that the shaky photographer meant the ones on my face. What should have been about a hundred seconds of standing and smiling toward the camera became nine or ten minutes of me struggling to compose myself and my mother silently developing innovative methods to beat the hell out of us on the walk back to the car. Every year for about half a decade, she rightfully announced it was the last year we were doing pictures.

Last month, in the middle of a stuffy mall, my own family spent two solid hours from the moment we joined the Santa line to when the apathetic teen handed over our incredibly overpriced photograph. I’ll never not think about the church photos when we take professional pictures, and I’m sure if my mom is reading this that she’ll smile and say something about paybacks.

[Activity 1] “Snoopy and Maker’s”

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Every year the faceless family south of us erected over-sized inflatable holiday decorations, killing perfectly good grass and lowering property values in our entire ZIP code, Dad would say. Mom’d say let ’em be and Jeremy always announced that this would be the year he’d puncture and steal them in the night. I’d never invite boys over until well into spring when only a yellow patch of land proved they’d been stored in their backyard shed. Dad would drink Maker’s more each time a boy held out his shaky hand to introduce himself the way Mom had taught him only seconds earlier in our narrow kitchen that always seemed to have a burned-out bulb.

When our twins were old enough to get wide-eyed at electric decorations, they’d gawk at the twenty-foot Snoopy snow globe next door, but Frank would just ride the brakes and hum along with Deano. The year Jeremy got released on Christmas Eve, he pulled Frank aside to tell him jail was better than marriage while the girls dressed Ken in Barbie’s outfits and Mom hovered over them with a bit lip as she struggled to open another bottle of Maker’s.

[This was inspired by George Saunders’ “The Sticks”, a flash fiction piece we discussed on Jan. 9, 2019 in my graduate fiction writing workshop class.]