Hand to God, after multiple awards, two off-Broadway productions, and a production on Broadway to rave reviews, has become one of the nation’s most produced plays this theater season. Robert Askin’s wild and irreverent play, which is receiving its Chicago premiere by Victory Gardens, combines dark comedy, drama and horror to depict the dangers of repressed anger and present a compelling argument for the necessity for some bad in the world. Indeed, the characters in Askin’s play, with the exception, perhaps, of Jessica (a grounded, conscientious Nina Ganet) all at one point must grapple with impulsive behaviors that fly in the face of the conventional wisdom of their religious upbringing.
Jason (Alex Weisman) and his mother, Margery (Janelle Snow) are on shaky ground as they navigate the aftermath of Jason’s father’s death and work to create a puppet ministry in their Texas town. Amongst the participants in the church’s puppet club are Jessica, a peppy young girl who is more interested in Balinese shadow puppetry, and Timothy (Curtis Edward Jackson), a troubled outsider clad in all black who outwardly opposes participating in Margery’s extracurricular activity, but secretly harbors a deep lust for her. Even Pastor Greg (Eric Slater), battles his own inner demons when pathetically pursuing his romantic interest. When Jason’s hand puppet, Tyrone, begins to take on a vicious and outspoken life of its own, all hell literally breaks loose.
Hand to God‘s two biggest strengths are its committed cast and winning scenic design by Joe Schermoly, both for their meticulous craft and prioritization of veracity. The events that transpire in Hand to God at times stretch believability, but tight work from the ensemble treats these moments just as seriously as any of the play’s others. Perhaps no cast member is tasked with selling anything more than Weisman, who not only plays a troubled, quiet teenager, but also tackles the raucous and raunchy puppet Tyrone, who may be a manifestation of Satan. Askins’ script demands an actor with increasingly manic agility, and Weisman is up to the task. Similarly strong work from Snow, Ganet, Slater and Jackson rounds out a cast that meets the play’s twisting stakes at every level they ratchet up to.
Schermoly’s scenic design–which uses a turntable to shift from setting to setting–is an absolute triumph. From church basement to alley to bedroom to pastor’s office, each location functions less as a set and more as a living, breathing snapshot of a Texas church. From the height and color of the chairs to the cheerful, Christian posters on the walls, Schermoly’s set presents an authentic backdrop for the rest of the team to realize their vision.
Askin’s script is brimming with supernatural and satanic events, but the piece is ultimately a character drama and meditation on the need for some balance of good and bad for humankind to ultimately grow. These messages are hammered home by monologues before and after the main action of the evening, and are served up as sermons by a caustic Tyrone from his puppet pulpit. While both thought-provoking and amusing (Tyrone wistfully discusses a time before society when humans could defecate wherever they please), the meat of this message is handled by Weisman and Snow in their early scenes together, as well as the piece’s harrowing climax. These final moments ring particularly true in director Gary Griffin’s production, casting Act I’s more bold zaniness in a new light.
Hand to God has been extended and will play through October 30 at Victory Gardens’ Biograph Theater at 2433 N. Lincoln. Performances are held Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30pm, Saturdays at 3pm and 7:30pm, and Sundays at 3pm. For tickets or more information, call 773-871-3000 or visit http://victorygardens.org/.