Review: ‘Hand to God’ by Fredericksburg Theatre Ensemble

Fredericksburg Theatre Ensemble (fte) was established in the Spring of 2011. They’re a nonprofit organization, focusing on guilty pleasures and “celebrating the art of the uncomfortable through quality community theatre productions”, as they say on their website. The company uses all local talent and prides itself on their inclusiveness, inviting anyone to join in their “creative chaos.”

Zechariah Beale and Heather McIntosh-Braden in ‘Hand to God.’ Photo by Kylie Clark.

Producing eleven shows a year, with a new show each month, fte’s May production is the comedy, Hand to God. The play, written by Robert Askins, is extremely dark, with unveiled social commentary on sin, sex, and honesty. It takes place in the small town of devoutly Christian Cypress, Texas, following a mother and son and the strange evolution of a puppet named Tyrone, who is possessed by the devil.

Devon Clark directed the ridiculously hilarious but thought-provoking piece.

The set, designed by Kylie Clark and David Strong, is impressively versatile. At times being a large open room, resembling a church school room, but with movable walls that then cut the space in half to create an office or a bedroom.

The play opens with a prologue. A puppet-stand is lit mid-stage, when a puppet pops up and begins explaining, in a very broad and graphic way, how man first started living in groups and created laws and religion, to determine what was wrong and right. He ends his speech with foreboding and a twisted laugh, saying, “When I have put myself ahead of the group. When I have acted badly, in order that I may stay around the campfire all I have to do is say…the devil made me do it.”

Next we see recently widowed Margery (Heather McIntosh-Braden) and her son Jason (Zechariah Beale). They are struggling to cope with their loss, and in an attempt to stay busy, Margery runs her church’s puppet club, which uses puppets to teach kids about the Bible and avoiding Satan.

Sadly, the club turns out to only be attended by three kids, none of whom are enthused to be there, including her son.  Jason’s crush, Jessica (Susan Rearick), and troublemaker, Timmy (Josh Watson) round out the group which meets in the church basement.

McIntosh-Braden is perfect as the quintessential southern church mom, trying to keep her life (and her calm) together.   Timmy constantly disrupts the class and Margery sends the other kids from the room to have a word with him. Watson as Timmy is a classic smart-ass and sexually charged kid, revealing his attraction to Margery, who flatly rejects him.

Zechariah Beale in ‘Hand to God.’ Photo courtesy of Fredericksburg Theatre Ensemble.

While alone, the usually introverted Jason uses his puppet Tyrone to try to impress Jessica by performing the Abbott and Costello, “Who’s on First?” routine. But when Jason allows her to believe that he’s the author, Tyrone comes to life, berates Jessica for not having heard of the skit, and spills that Jason is into her.

Beale does a fantastic job giving Tyrone his own voice and personality. Jason’s meek nature is night and day to Tyrone’s blunt crassness. But unfortunately, Jessica is scared off by the encounter and leaves.

On the drive home, a humiliated Jason expresses to Margery that he wants to quit the puppet club, resulting in a huge fight that culminates with Jason ripping Tyrone in half and Margery angrily kicking him out of the car, leaving him on the side of the road.

Beale and McIntosh-Braden work the mother-son chemistry well. The loss of the father has sent their relationship into spiraling dysfunction and the pain the characters are both in is real and touching.

The next day, no one shows up for the puppet club and the church’s pastor, Pastor Greg (Trip Lloyd) attempts to comfort Margery. But his seemingly innocent friendliness turns into revealing his affection for her and wanting her in his arms. Margery gently rebuffs him, which he takes harshly and then abruptly leaves.

Finally at her limit, Margery flies into a rage. She rips a poster off the wall and flips over a chair, as Timmy enters the room. Intrigued by seeing this side of her, he joins in the destruction. Margery becomes aroused and the sexual tension escalates until the two end up pouncing each other.

The show has many moments of hilarity, but this scene in particular is side-achingly fantastic. Watson and McIntosh-Braden are incredible together, milking the absurdity of the sudden turn in their relationship with oozing lust and a touch of crazy.

That night, Jason is awoken by a self-resurrected Tyrone. Jason tries to tell the demented puppet to leave him alone, but Tyrone is persuasive and plays on Jason’s weaknesses, blaming Margery for his father’s demise and convincing him that Timmy has stolen Jessica. Jason finally agrees to let Tyrone stay and the two plan to tell everyone the truth about what they think.

Returning to a room in shambles, the next morning everyone is on edge. The rebuffed Pastor is shocked at the wreckage and Margery awkwardly denies knowing why the room is a mess, both leaving to gather scripts for their puppet show. Tyrone aggressively flirts with Jessica and attempts to belittle Timmy. But Timmy, feeling cocky, blurts that he had sex with Jason’s mom. Tyrone goes full Satan, attacking Timmy, making the lights change (kudos to Josh Watson for his lighting design) things fly off the shelves and everyone runs out.

And that’s all just in the first act.

There’s much to resolve but the drama is by no means over. Talks of exorcism and the issue of Margery’s affair with Timmy comes to light.

Lloyd’s Pastor Greg has a transition, which he plays to a T, from rejected, wounded dog to a man of faith with staunch determination to help Margery and Jason from the demonic puppet.

There’s also a puppet sex scene that makes Avenue Q look like Sesame Street and sends you into that hysterical laughter where you can no longer breathe. I should mention that Michael Colby served as Puppetry Coach for the production. Beale and Rearick do a great job for all their work, but this scene is especially outstanding.

The entire production is well thought-out down to the scene change music, which ironically come from Wee Sing Bible songs by Pamela Beall and Susan Nipp (sound design by Kylie Clark and Devon Clark). The childish innocence playing in the dark after the disturbing events of the scenes creates a mix of humor and eeriness.

Fredericksburg Theatre Ensemble has put on an amazing production that touches on topics of religion, perceived purity, and the fragile nature of relationships. And then takes a sledgehammer to them. The material is scathing and bold but not without a strong message about hypocrisy.

Hand to God is far from a family-friendly show but promises an unadulterated comedic euphoria, for those of age, proving fte to be a rare gem in the Fredericksburg area. Go for a good time. And then probably shower after.

Running Time: Two hours, with one 15-minute intermission.

Hand to God plays through May 26th, 2019 at Fredericksburg Theatre Ensemble performing at Fred’s Theater, 810 Caroline Street, 4th Floor, Fredericksburg, VA. For tickets, go online.