In the beginning of “The Christians,” the leader of an Evangelical church addresses God directly.
“Bring us together,” he intones. “Make us one.”
His prayers scarcely seem necessary. In Lucas Hnath’s drama, now making its regional debut in an absorbing San Francisco Playhouse production, Pastor Paul’s congregation appears ready to follow him anywhere.
With his next words, though, he shocks the flock, turning his devotees into defectors.
Paul, it seems, has had a revelation. After hearing the tale of a youth who died a heroic death — but wasn’t “saved” in the Christian faith — the pastor announces that he no longer believes in the notion of hell.
The schism that follows is swift and devastating, beginning with Paul’s well-liked associate pastor, Joshua.
After a fiery confrontation – the characters speak into microphones, even in one-on-one scenes — church elder Jay arrives to gently remind Paul of his fiscal obligations. The church is “a massive corporation,” he notes, one that has only recently settled its debts — and Paul can’t be allowed to let it backslide.
Directed by Bill English, who also designed the excellent set, the production illuminates what’s at stake.
The action unfolds in a handsome contemporary church interior dominated by a massive cross; sleek wooden walls, abstract stained glass panels and digital screens project heavenly vistas. A church organist leads a pastel-robed choir in heart-tugging hymns.
The men make earnest points.
Still, the play’s greatest impact comes with its two female characters — Jenny, a confused young congregant, and Elizabeth, Paul’s well-groomed wife — whose well-timed outbursts underscore their individual feelings of betrayal while pointing up the subservient nature of women’s roles in this most modern of churches.
The cast is strong and well-integrated.
Anthony Fusco, one of the Bay Area’s most versatile actors, invests Paul with humanity, resisting a smarmy caricature of the pastor. As he struggles to explain his position, you can see his earnestness and determination to bring the others around, and his own sense of betrayal when they don’t.
Lance Gardner’s impassioned Joshua, and Warren David Keith’s cerebral Jay, deliver their scenes with assurance.
Stephanie Prentice taps the emotional core of Elizabeth’s self-contained exterior, and Millie Brooks burns with conviction in her scene as the congregant.
Hnath’s play was written in 2014, but it feels especially timely now. Even as churches move toward greater inclusiveness, “The Christians” suggests that there are still some ideas that just won’t fly.
Where: San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes March 11
Tickets: $20 to $125
Contact: (415) 677-9596, www.sfplayhouse.org