Through Sun 5/21
My summary review of Broadway’s Hand to God stated, “The production is well-conceived and performed and makes for a fascinating theatrical experience.” I went on to say, “Tyrone is evil. Tyrone, he of big, vacant eyes is both disturbing and funny. Tyrone is vile, violent and demonic. Tyrone is raunchy. Tyrone is foul-mouthed.”
Tyrone is a sock puppet who is the anti-hero of Robert Askins’ Hand To God, a play that induces convulsive laughter while being terrifying.
Happily, my summary reaction to the New York staging also fits that of the Dobama production, where the well-written script is now being performed. The local theater pulls out all the stops. The production qualities…set, props, puppets, acting and staging are all top notch.
“Hand To God” tells the tale of Jason, a shy, inhibited, confused teen who lives in Cypress, Texas. His father has recently died. Both he and his mother, products of the country’s bible belt, are in chaotic angst.
As an escape from reality, Jason’s mother, Margery, has created a Christian Puppet Ministry with the purpose of teaching “faith and morality.” Little does she know that her project will result in Jason creating Tyrone, an alter ego, which provides an outlet for the boy’s inner turmoil. Tyrone becomes a permanent fixture on Jason’s arm and takes on a life of its own.
The church’s other teens are likewise affected. Timothy, a studly oversexed bully, not only harasses Jason, but lusts after Margery. He uses his charms to seduce her, while intimidating not only Jason, but Jessica, whom Jason secretly lusts after.
Tyrone, like all alter-egos, is everything Jason is not. He festers the boy’s darkest desires and becomes his destructive dominant personality. He speaks and acts as timid Jason cannot. Tyrone fights back against Timothy, he makes a connection with Jessica, he swears, rants and raves, he questions the purpose of religion. He even goes as far as seducing Jessica’s puppet. Yes, a vivid puppet sex act takes place on stage!
Steven Boyer played Jason in the original Broadway production. He was compelling in the role. Interestingly, he had an intimate relationship with the googly-eyed sock puppet with the mop of red hair, as he personally crafted it when the show had its first reading at Pace University. Boyer went on to garner a Broadway Tony nomination for Best Leading Actor in a Play for his portrayal.
Luke Wehner, who portrays Jason in the Dobama production, is every bit as proficient as Boyer. As did Boyer, Wehner makes little effort to be a ventriloquist. It matters little as the sock puppet becomes so real that when Tyrone speaks, all eyes are on him, not Jason. Tyrone becomes a real being, the devil incarnate.
When Jason tries to rid himself of Tyrone in a battle to the end, it parallels a victim of Dissociative Identity Disorder, which in lay terms is referred to as “split personality.” He must fight to destroy the psychological issues of trauma that brought about the need for the protective device.
The rest of the Dobama cast, under the wise and focused direction of Mathew Wright, is excellent. Tricia Bestic is correctly pathetic as Margery, the grief-stricken mother who, like Jason, needs to go through an emotional catharsis, which takes on the guise of sexual promiscuity, drinking and rejection of the affection shown to her by Pastor Greg (David Bugher as a well-meaning nebbish).
Molly Israel (Jessica) clearly portrays another lost soul who stands up for and tries to help Jason. The duo portrays a sex scene using puppets as substitutes for their own desires which was hysterically funny, while creating embarrassment for some purists in the audience. Austin Gonser was born to play the smarmy Timothy who undulates across the stage in pursuit of seducing Marjory, while intimidating Jason.
Benn Needham has created a multi-setting acting area, complete with massive turntable, that makes the scene changes flow quickly. Marcus Dana’s lighting design enhances the varying mood changes, as does Richard Ingraham’s sound design.
Be aware that the script questions the role and purpose of religion, has numerous swear words and contains several sex scenes, real and simulated.
CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Hand to God is a brilliant production, and places a spotlight on lost people caught up in their inabilities to cope with grief and abandonment. In fascination, we watch as these people lose healthy reality, replace it with abject pain, interspersing horror with laughter. This must-see staging, has to be one of the highlights of this theater season!
Hand of God runs through Sun 5/21 at Dobama Theatre. Call 216-932-3396 or go to dobama.org for tickets.
[Written by Roy Berko, member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle]