If life feels especially snowed-in this time of year, the Robert Askins play Hand to God is something to shatter the frost accumulated around your psyche.
It wields gleeful provocation like an ice pick, up to and including: a shy, misunderstood teen whose repressed id explodes via his hand puppet Tyrone; highly inappropriate rough sex between a church-going widow and the teen punk in her puppet ministry; and hints of Exorcist-style demonic possession.
And, oh yes, there will be blood.
Life is tough for Margery (Sharon Bajer) and her son Jason (Tom Keenan). Margery’s husband has been dead for six months and she tries to march onward like a Christian soldier, relying on her role in her Texas church as the leader of a ragtag "puppet ministry."
That’s not always easy since the church’s minister, Pastor Greg (Cory Wojcik), has started to express his feelings for Margery, and his plaintive wish for Margery to fill his "empty arms" is about as tantalizing a prospect as a ripped beanbag chair at a church rummage sale.
Dutiful son Jason is apparently the most talented puppeteer in Margery’s group, but the meetings are awkward. He’s tormented by the bullying slacker Timothy (Toby Hughes). And he is attracted to the nice girl Jessica (Amy Keating).
When the pressure gets to be too much, Jason’s innocuous puppet Tyrone starts to take on disturbing qualities. If Jason doesn’t have the gumption to take on Timothy, Tyrone does. If Jason isn’t bold enough to tell Jessica how he feels, Tyrone will...
Like a foam rubber insult comic, Tyrone is given to telling toxic truths. And he gets more opportunities to do so when Timothy starts bragging about having has sex with Jason’s mom, not untruthfully as we in the audience know from having experienced the shocking, funny scene minutes earlier.
Playwright Askins himself came from Texas, and has a puppet ministry in his own past. One can’t help wonder how that background informed the more outrageous details of this work.
But rest assured, this isn’t a literary exercise in acting out a-la-Tyrone on Askins’ part. For all its sexual hanky-panky and its second-act Hands of Orlac horror trappings, director Mitchell Cushman fashions a surprisingly thoughtful examination of the devils we humans are compelled to invent. Most characters fit into stereotypes: the nerd, the bad boy, the sexually repressed Christian mom and the goody-two-shoes pastor... and yet the material allows each one to transcend the clichés.
A great cast helps. Bajer is note-perfect funny-sexy as the southern matriarch whose passive Melanie Wilkes veneer peels away to reveal unhinged Scarlett O’Hara passions. Hughes makes an excellent priapic jerk. Wojcik finds some dignity in a role that might have easily registered as a mean joke. And Keating provides a certain deadpan anchor to the crazed goings-on, yet finds a place to shine when she appears with a strategic puppet of her own to try to defuse Jason/Tyrone’s rampage, a priceless scene.
She has a very good partner in it. Keenan, last seen on the Royal MTC stage as a compromised cop in Unnecessary Farce, demonstrates real brilliance in what amounts to a dual role, a villain and victim in one body. His skilled puppeteering doesn’t hurt.
The set design by Gillian Gallow is big and ambitious for the Warehouse stage, morphing the church-basement esthetic of rainbow colours on cinder block into something out of a Hieronymus Bosch hellscape.