It's difficult to say whether God was there, but spaced between the pews of the church, set off from the walls plastered thick with the intangibles of faith, were the faithful, the God-fearing, and Young Jean Lee.
The distinction here is important. It's important in part because despite her upbringing in an evangelical home, Lee was not a believer. And when you consider that she'd later write a joyful play called Church, not because she'd become a believer, but because she hadn't, because she felt uncomfortable writing about the subject, it becomes all the more remarkable.
The play, essentially a sermon given by four fiery young evangelical ministers, is not a work for which there are many details to be shared, plot arcs to be laid out. It is Lee's version of a service. The vibrancy of the written word booms from the players as they take to the stage and proclaim a gospel, written and rewritten after the casting was completed with the intention to confound.
"Everything that I would write and bring in, we would just look at it and tear it apart," says the 37-year-old Lee of the challenges she hit upon in developing the work. "I would write a draft of a sermon and somebody would say, 'Once I hear the word "Jesus," I just space out.'
"I would come up with ways to defeat that response in us," she adds, "and I just kept trying and trying, and we just kept tearing apart and tearing apart until finally we got to a place where we couldn't dismiss it."
Since Church's debut in New York in 2007, critics' accolades have proven those efforts worthwhile. (Though considering other recognition Lee has earned — key among them a 2011 Guggenheim fellowship — that success is hardly surprising.)
And it might sound odd, but it's that painstaking effort that makes the play's intention virtually impossible to surmise even as the curtain closes at the end of the hour.
Murray Ross, the artistic director for TheatreWorks, where the play will be performed through Nov. 6, admits that when he read it through for the first time, it wasn't what he'd expected.
"I was kind of stunned," says Ross. "I was taken by what I thought was the rich ambiguity of the play. It looked like it might be mocking religion, as avant-garde playwrights have been doing from Christopher Marlowe on, from Euripides on. One thing that theater does is take on religion. And [it] contests it. Ridicules it and mocks it and often disputes it. But what's interesting about this play is that it clearly doesn't do that."
He pauses for a moment before adding, "Or if it does do that, it doesn't just do that."
The work is propelled by the absurdity of its language and the earnestness of its players. The focus the ministers possess, even as arguments and bouts of chastisement unfurl, and it dips into the surreal, never breaks. They ask for prayers, then accept them with equanimity — whether prayers for the sick, or the dying, or prayers for a cab.
Essentially, whether it all succeeds depends upon the expectations people bring with them into the theater, and whether Church can play off and dismantle them.
"Today's audiences are just so savvy. They've seen it all," Lee says. "I think the purpose of the show is to sort of make people unable to categorize what they've just seen, that they can't really dismiss it, and they have to think about it."