In describing the play "Hand to God," it's hard to beat one reviewer's summary: It's like "Sesame Street" meets "The Exorcist."
Set in rural Texas, "Hand to God" tells the story of Margery, a woman whose husband has recently died. When Margery's pastor asks her to create a puppet ministry to tell the stories of the Bible, things unravel when her 15-year-old son's puppet takes on a life of its own. Tyrone, the puppet, announces that he is the devil, and begins revealing things that everyone wishes would stay secret.
"It's an absolutely insane, outrageous ride," says Kimberly Jones Clark, who plays Margery in the TheatreLab and 5th Wall Theatre co-production opening this weekend. "It's shocking, but at the same time you really feel for these people and what they've been through."
Through the show's crude humor — and its characters' sexual attraction to each other — "Hand to God" raises questions about mankind's relationship with each other and God. Gary Hopper, the show's director, says he's intrigued by the play's "investigation of trauma, and how we repress it, and how that can have significant effects."
"You can't bury it. You've got to have significant others to help you on your journey," Hopper says. "The main characters, by the end of the play, begin that healthy process [of discussing their trauma]. They're taking the first steps to cure themselves."
Adam Turck, who plays Margery's son Jason and Tyrone the demonic puppet, says the role is the most technically challenging he's ever portrayed. As an example of the show's demands, he mentions a scene where Jason impresses a girl by performing Abbott and Costello's classic "Who's On First?" routine by himself.
To master the puppet, Turck practiced two or three hours a day in front of a mirror for weeks. He's also undergone dialect coaching to master a Texas accent for Jason and give Tyrone his own distinctive voice. Given that he's playing two different characters simultaneously, Turck says this show has more "physical choreography" than past plays he's been in.
"It has to be a bit more formed, a bit more specific," he says. "Sometimes it's just me on stage having a conversation with myself."
All this work with the puppet seems to be paying off. One night during rehearsal, Hopper was shocked by a scene between Jason and Tyrone.
"I said, 'Oh my God, there are two characters there,'" Hopper says. "I think the audience is going to be thrilled, going to be shocked, will laugh, will be shocked that they're laughing, and then ultimately be cheering [the characters] on."
Jones Clark says the show is so funny that she's had a hard time not breaking character during what's supposed to be an emotionally vulnerable moment.
"I don't know how I'm going to make it through," Jones Clark says. "It's so adorable and so hysterical and so heartbreaking at the same time."
While the show is very funny, Hopper says he wants the characters to come across as real people.
"When you do comedy, actors have to be absolutely truthful so that when you get on stage, it's based on true emotion and vulnerability," Hopper says.
Jones Clark echoes Hopper, adding there's a universality in these characters' search for answers.
"These people are in their lives, and in their moments of despair and turmoil are looking up to the heavens for God's guidance, and they're left wondering if God is even there," Jones Clark says. "[The ending] kind of leaves it up to the audience." S
TheatreLab and 5th Wall's "Hand to God" plays July 13-28 at the Basement, 300 E. Broad St. For information, visit theatrelabrva.org or call 506-3533.