Theater review: The God of Hell at Toy Boat Community Art Space

Rachel McCrain performs in Anam Cara's staging of The God of Hell. Photo by Michelle Grasty-Colont

Saying “it’s perfect timing” to stage Sam Shepard’s dark-comedy, The God of Hell, is an understatement. As the fate of our nation hangs in the balance, Anam Cara Theatre Company has set off quite the political cherry bomb on the local theater scene. The show runs through Friday, Nov. 11, at Toy Boat Community Art Space.

The play has received a lot of critical flak since its 2004 premiere at New York’s Actors Studio Drama School Theatre, closing after a very short run. Often perceived to have big ideas with threadbare characters, The God of Hell seemed burned out and largely forgotten. However, with conviction-filled productions like Anam Cara’s, it’s finally allowed to flip-off the naysayers.

We find ourselves at Frank and Emma’s old farmhouse somewhere in the vast plains of Wisconsin. Every day the couple goes about the same mundane tasks — making breakfast, breeding heifers and watering houseplants — nothing exciting, nothing out of the ordinary. But this morning is different. When a strange political salesman named Welch comes lurking with flags and patriotic cookies, it doesn’t take Emma long to piece together that something is amiss. Frank’s friend Haynes is hiding out in the basement and, we come to find out, he’s been contaminated by plutonium, which sparks blue electro-shocks when touched.

Alison Tippins plays Emma at a distance. She’s lost inside herself and this vacantness makes the play all-the-more haunting. This performance brings to mind a tormented Mia Farrow in Roman Polanski’s horror masterpiece, Rosemary’s Baby, except that Tippins doesn’t stir herself into such a blatant panic. While others would realistically want to knock the lights out of an intruder, she remains in reverie. Such a choice shows that director Missy Bell has a deeper message to file down to. We, the current political audience, are either too submissive or too scared to commit to a choice for fear of hitting the wrong button and making a drastic mistake.

The attractive Jon Stockdale adequately fills the boots of a good-old-boy. He fuels necessary aggravation by being easily manipulated, yet we sense he’s hiding something. The play doesn’t overtly tell us these things, it’s implied. Bell, being the great director she is, knows we’re meant to be lead down a path of uncertainty.

Peter Lundblad is excellent as the radioactively tortured Haynes. A memorable ensemble actor, he gets the chance to stand out here. Lundblad understands how to correctly portray dark-comedy — something that shouldn’t be humorous, but is. Had he overplayed Haynes (which would’ve been easy to do), the performance of Rachel McCrain as Welch wouldn’t have worked.

McCrain gives one of the most scintillating local performances in a long time. Her satirical character is off the deep end, and the play manages to stay afloat through the political murkiness because of it. Her sinister smile, artificial emotions and passive line delivery are funny at first. Rather quickly though, we reconsider our laughter and this amazing performance becomes ruthlessly frightening. What would we do if the government simply came straight through our front door, ordering us into a box and shaking up our freedom? Such a thought sends shivers and, by the end, McCrain has us chewing on a bucket of nails.

Avant-garde Anam Cara surprises with this impactful production. From the rawness of Erinn Hartley’s set to Amanda Shive’s thoughtful costumes, Michael Bell’s challenging lighting and, especially, Mary Zogzas’ eerie sound design, all production aspects are carefully observed.

WHAT: The God of Hell
WHERE: Toy Boat Community Art Space, 101 Fairview Road, anamcaratheatre.org
WHEN: Friday and Saturday, Nov. 4 and 5, and Thursday and Friday, Nov. 10 and 11, at 8 p.m. $16.

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About Kai Elijah Hamilton
Kai Elijah Hamilton was born and raised in Western North Carolina. A poet, screenwriter and playwright, he is also a published film and theater critic. Hamilton is a creative individual with a wide range of talents and interests. He is an Award Winning Actor (Tom in "The Glass Menagerie") and Director ("A Raisin In The Sun"). He previously served as Artistic Director at Hendersonville Little Theatre and has a B.A. in theater and film from Western Carolina University. In 2016, Hamilton's play "The Sleepwalker" won a spot in the first annual Asheville National 10-Minute Play Festival by NYS3. His play "Blackberry Winter" was a finalist in the elite Strawberry One-Act Festival in NYC winning Best Short Film/Video Diary. Hamilton is also the author of the full-length southern-gothic play "Dry Weather Wind" which has been called "Important. Relevant to the issues in today's time, and beautifully written..."

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