Lucas Hnath is a playwright who knows how to deal with both big ideas and gut-level emotions. A rare combination.

‘THE CHRISTIANS’
Highly recommended
When: Through Jan. 29
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted
Tickets: $20 – $89
Info: (312) 35-1650; http://www.steppenwolf.org
Run time: 85 minutes, with no intermission

In “Hillary and Clinton” (penned shortly after Donald Trump descended the escalator in his Manhattan tower to announce his candidacy for president), he penned what might just be the most insightful play to be written about the 2016 election.

In “Death Tax” he stared straight into the all-seeing eyes of an elderly woman who suspects the machinations of those entrusted with her care.

And in “Isaac’s Eye,” he took a provocative look at the competitive nature of scientists whose social skills often lag behind their brain power. (All three works have been produced on Chicago stages.)

Now, in “The Christians,” his thought-provoking play that is receiving a rousing production at Steppenwolf Theatre, Hnath deals with religion in all its many aspects — from the interpretation of essential dogma (including visions of heaven and hell, and the salvation of the soul), to the many aspects of politics and business that now (and perhaps always did) involve the church. And in just 85 compulsively watchable minutes that feature both the peerless dulcet tones of veteran Steppenwolf ensemble member Tom Irwin and several other fine actors, as well as the voices of a spirit-raising choir, he dares to dance right into the fire and brimstone and moral ambivalence of it all.

Tom Irwin (left) stars as Pastor Paul and Glenn Davis plays an Associate Pastor in the Steppenwolf Theatre production of "The Christians," a play by Lucas Hnath. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Tom Irwin (left) stars as Pastor Paul and Glenn Davis plays an Associate Pastor in the Steppenwolf Theatre production of “The Christians,” a play by Lucas Hnath. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

The backdrop for “The Christians,” which thrives on the incisive direction of K. Todd Freeman (who, incidentally, is featured as an actor in the soon-to-be-released film of Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events”), is a neon-lit mega-church led by Pastor Paul (Irwin). The Pastor’s charismatic oversight has transformed what was initially a storefront operation into what, after two decades, and perilous financial over-reaching, has turned into a vast, thriving operation finally free of debt. (Walt Spangler’s set and Scott Zielinski’s lighting deftly suggest the monumentality of the place.) But on this particular Sunday, along with celebrating that success, Pastor Paul has decided to use his sermon to suggest a radical change, for he has had an epiphany — a radical moral awakening of sorts. And now, at a moment of strength, he believes he can lead his congregation in a dramatically new direction.

As he takes hold of his microphone, the pastor exudes the sort of well-oiled sincerity and eloquence that clearly has made him such a successful leader. And he proceeds to tell his parishioners how a story related to him by a missionary — about a teenage boy’s selfless effort to save his younger sister from a shattering bomb attack — has altered his way of thinking. The question he ultimately asks is this: Shouldn’t this boy, who was not a Christian, but who behaved with the utmost sense of morality, be welcomed into heaven?

That question is a profound challenge to the most essential elements of Christian belief, and shakes the very foundation of church doctrine. And Paul’s Associate Pastor (played with quiet fervency by Glenn Davis) soon steps up to voice his more conservative views with passion. Clearly a deep schism has been created in the church. And sides must (and will) be taken, with Paul’s wife (Shannon Cochran in a precision-tuned, frozen smile turn as a clerical wife whose “job” is akin to that of a politician’s wife), as well as a choir member and congregant (the formidable Jacqueline Williams), and Elder Jay (Robert Breuler), expressing their views in public and private.

As for Irwin’s easily seductive performance, it is so spot-on you can see him helming a mega-church of his own, although, like Hnath, it is the theater stage, rather than the pulpit, that has claimed him.

As for getting the adrenalin going — that is the job of the band and choir, under the superb musical direction of keyboardist Jaret Landon. So be sure to take your seat well before curtain time as Landon, Leonard Maddox Jr. (on drums), and singers Charlie Strater (on guitar), Faith Howard, Yando Lopez, Jazelle Morriss, Mary-Margaret Roberts and Williams raise the roof with their singing of hymns in the key of hot.

The choir creates a rousing sound in the Steppenwolf Theatre production of Lucas Hnath's play, "The Christians." (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

The choir creates a rousing sound in the Steppenwolf Theatre production of Lucas Hnath’s play, “The Christians.” (Photo: Michael Brosilow)