Raising Hell: "The Christians" and "Sally McCoy"—two plays about the good, evil, and people at odds to see now

"The Christians"

Those who do not belong to megachurches tend to find them alienating, to put it kindly—and I count myself here. For one thing, there's the stripping away of any aesthetic value established by the old religions (say what you will about the Roman Catholic Church, at least they know how to decorate) down to sterile walls, giant screens flashing Bible verses in bad fonts along with kitschy stock images of sunsets, and a vanilla contemporary rock band. And then there's the dogmatic intolerance and shaming of anyone who falls outside the megachurch's usually strict moral code, and that typically includes non-believers.

In Lucas Hnath's "The Christians," those discomfiting elements are all in place (minus the shitty band—here instead we have the impressive talents of Baltimore's New Psalmist Baptist Church Choir, the Greater Baltimore Church of Christ Choir, and the Community Choir of Baltimore Center Stage, depending on the night of the show). But none of this—neither the building that houses the fictional megachurch where the play is set nor the beliefs that give the church purpose—is at all stable. To put it Biblically, this church is built on sand, not rock.

The church's leading preacher and patriarch, Pastor Paul (played by Howard W. Overshown), has recently experienced something of an epiphany that contradicts everything his rapidly growing church has stood for since it began in a storefront 20 years ago. Paul now believes God spoke to him directly to say that Hell does not exist and everyone, non-believers (and even Hitler) included, will be saved and received by God in Heaven. Paul relays this change to his church, imbuing his sermon with Obama pauses so the attendees might swallow the possibility that there is no merit to the fear that for years motivated them to not only attend church but to devote huge fractions of their paychecks to the church. It doesn't go well.

To most non-fundamentalist-evangelical-Christians, Paul at first seems like a kind of hero in his attempt to make his church's mission more compassionate and, well, less hateful. And though he's ostensibly modest enough not to say it, that is how he sees himself—a hero. But his valor and pride wilt as it becomes increasingly clear that his decision—and moreover, the suspicious timing of his announcement—have caused a rift in the church far deeper and more expensive than he'd anticipated.

Hnath, the son of an evangelical minister, is uninterested in booing the very booable, ye-shall-burn-in-hellfire beliefs of the churchgoers and associate pastor (Adam Gerber) who take issue with Paul's new teachings. "The Christians" pays less attention to the appearance and implications of those values (you're going to Hell, and you're going to Hell, and you're going to Hell) and more to the force that keeps those kind of ideas alive and appealing to some in a culture that, to an extent, grows less tolerant of intolerance. Empathetic where it's difficult to find empathy, Hnath draws useful lines between belief and the commanding human need for community—and for answers where there are none.

"The Christians" runs through Oct. 8 at Baltimore Center Stage. For more information, visit centerstage.org.

"Sally McCoy"

William Anderson "Devil Anse" Hatfield's grave in Appalachian West Virginia is marked with a life-size statue of his likeness. He died at the age of 81 after serving in the Confederate Army and spearheading one side of America's most legendary inter-family feud, which left several members of each family dead. The grave of Sally McCoy, wife of Devil Anse's rival Randolph "Ol' Rannel" McCoy, is marked with a modest headstone with no death date. No known photographs of Sally exist, little of her life was documented, and her most significant known involvement in the feud ended in failure.

But that failure, or the little that is known of it, serves as the frame to Alice Stanley's tribute to the unsung McCoy matriarch. After receiving its first staged reading as part of The Strand Theatre's Women On Top series earlier this year, "Sally McCoy" premiered in September at Cohesion Theatre Company, which was co-founded by Stanley and the play's director, Brad Norris.

Stanley offers a fictionalized account of Sally's attempt to rescue her sons (three of her 16 total children) from their execution by the Hatfields in retaliation for their brutal attack on Devil Anse's brother. Though Tolbert, Pharmer, and Bud McCoy were ultimately killed by Hatfield bullets, Stanley pictures a heroine who seems to do everything right in her effort to save her sons. Sally (played with quiet precision by Katherine Vary) is stoic and calculating, and she knows her enemy well—although she doesn't really see Devil Anse (Jonas Grey) as her enemy, or any of his family for that matter. She's uninterested in her husband's feud; she's uninterested in her husband. But she will march into the home of an vengeful, ill-tempered, and armed man in the middle of the night if it means there's a chance it will keep her boys safe.

In art and in legend, the Hatfield-McCoy feud has served as an All-American backdrop to star-crossed romance amid violent rivalry. With understated, steady writing and an almost scientific eye to human behavior, Stanley leaves those histrionics to "Romeo and Juliet" and "West Side Story." We experience the thwarted romance between Roseanna McCoy and Johnse Hatfield only through the tender exchanges between Roseanna's mother and Johnse, played by Jane Jongeward more as a kind but naive man-boy than a courageous leading man. In Sally's empathy toward the young Hatfield, as well as her push to tap into the Devil Anse and his more courteous but equally dangerous brother Valentine (Thom Sinn), Stanley presents a woman whose love is not merely "motherly" or her compassion simply a desperate appeal to the Hatfields' pathos. Sally McCoy understands the worth of vulnerability and communication, and perhaps that her perceptiveness fails her is beside the point—what happened to the Hatfield boys was going to happen no matter what. Even in Sally's polarized circumstance, she obliterates the lines between ally and enemy and good and evil. And that's more thrilling than any feud.

"Sally McCoy" runs through Oct. 1 at the The Fallout Shelter at United Evangelical Church. For more information, visit cohesiontheatre.org.

Copyright © 2017, Baltimore City Paper, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Privacy Policy