Rarely do we get a play on local stages as eloquent, infuriating and heartbreaking as “The Whale” now at the Three Penny Theater at the R25 Arts Complex. But it is truly special to have a second play — B Street’s “The Christians” — that is equally challenging and entertaining and on stage across town at the same time.
Joel Mario Rickert stars as Charlie, a 600-lb. man gradually eating himself to death as he teaches an internet writing course (voice-only, no webcam so his students won’t see his sad state) in “The Whale.” Charlie is a gay man whose descent into hell — he rarely leaves his sofa and his home is littered with empty chip bags, candy bar and other snack wrappers and stacks of junk food reinforcements — began with the death of his partner, Alan, after an encounter with leaders of his Mormon church. Charlie’s only live human interactions come when he is visited by Liz, a friend and nurse who tries to monitor his health (he refuses to go to the hospital) and brings him food. Subway sandwiches seem to be the sustenance of choice, but Charlie isn’t losing an ounce on the Jared diet. A chance visit one day by the young Mormon Elder Thomas, hoping to share the message of his church with Charlie, gives the obese man another point of contact, as does the arrival of his 16-year-old daughter Ellie, from whom he has been estranged for 14 years. Charlie and Ellie’s mother divorced after Charlie and Alan became involved.
Ellie is both disgusted and intrigued by Charlie and hopes to reconcile — a least a bit — with her father before his apparently imminent death. But in the face of so many years of self-loathing, and of misunderstanding and indifference from the church, is there enough reason for Charlie to care about living?
“The Whale,” gently but urgently asks us to examine how we treat others and how that treatment influences their lives and ours. It makes a powerful statement about the devastating effect of grief and the lost of love, and it challenges the church — any church — to be more generous in forgiveness and less prone to condemnation.
Similarly, “The Christians” challenges the audience to examine its faith by asking is God an all-loving father or one who punishes nonbelievers with eternal hell? Can one reconcile the two?
Kurt Johnson stars as Pastor Paul, the founder of a non-denominational storefront church that has grown to mega-size, with a financial officer (played by Greg Alexander) and an assistant pastor, Joshua (Darian Dauchan). On the day the pastor announces that the church mortgage has been paid off, he delivers a sermon in which he questions the existence of hell as incompatible with the belief in a living, loving god. Assistant pastor Joshua questions Paul’s message, saying that without the threat of hell, no one would have reason to behave. A parishioner (Tara Sissom) worries that without a hell to punish evildoers, she might share eternity with the likes of Hitler.
A schism ensues in which some church members stay with Pastor Paul, while others go into a separate congregation led by Joshua. After questions from his wife (Margaret Laurena Kemp) and church associates, Paul begins to question himself. Does belief require a hell? Did he wait until his church was financially secure before announcing his controversial view? How does one know what is real and true when it comes to the matter of faith?
In a play marked by several excellent performances, Johnson delivers what may be the performance of his career as the conflicted preacher. He is as convincing laying out his path to the decision that there is no hell as he is depicting his doubts about his motivation and sincerity.
“The Christians” is so authentically real in its staging (an uncredited choir adds to the ambiance) that some may feel as if they’ve been preached to. The sermonizing experience seems to be the intent of playwright Lucas Hnath, who challenges congregants — that is, audience members — to think deeply about what is said in church and to decide what they believe.
Both “The Whale” and “The Christians” come to one powerful conclusion: religion is best when it is inclusive, accepting and forgiving.
“The Whale” is performed at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 12 at the Three Penny Theater at the R25 Arts Complex at 1725 R St. Tickets are $12-$20. For more information: (916) 451-5822 or calstage.org.
“The Christians” is performed at 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Thursdays, 7 p.m. Fridays, 8 p.m. Saturdays and 1 p.m. on select Sundays through Feb. 11 at the B3 Stage at B Street Theatre, 2711 B St. Tickets are $26-$38. For more information: (916) 443-5300 or bstreettheatre.org.
Photo: Joel Mario Rickert in “The Whale” courtesy of Three Penny Theater.