Chris Haydon, Artistic director of London's Gate Theatre, returns to the Traverse following 2013's Fringe First-winning Grounded – a powerful monologue about a drone pilot by George Brant given an edge-of-seat, white-knuckle performance by Lucy Ellinson. This year's offering, another American play featuring Ellinson, is ostensibly gentler: a church is split over doctrinal disagreements when progressive Pastor Paul denounces fire-and-brimstone ideology and denies the existence of hell.
Haydon's deceptively cosy staging—we're cast as the congregation, and are joined by a community choir of non-actors—houses a dramatically robust and theologically rigorous text that will resonate with both atheists and the faithful. It's refreshing to see a play about religion that doesn't focus on institutional abuse or extremism, and Lucas Hnath's writing has an almost Greek simplicity and profundity to its central questions – primarily questions about authority and interpretation. When a congregant defects to another church whose pastor picks out different passages to prove the existence of Satan, she realises “It's as if you have a choice how to read it.”
But Hnath's ethical quandaries are far from clear-cut. Pastor Paul's new no-judgement party line is tyrannically imposed on the flock, causing ripples through the community and tearing friendships apart, so it's unclear where liberal sympathies should lie. Ellinson joins a strong cast including Jaye Griffiths as the passionately torn Pastor's wife, and Haydon's direction has a stark simplicity that allows the play's philosophical conflicts to battle out captivatingly onstage and in his audience's heads.