Hand to God – Review by Brooks Appelbaum

A Friend of The Devil: “Hand to God” at TheaterWorks

Who would have guessed that the irreverent, foul-mouthed, and wildly imaginative “Hand to God,” now receiving a terrific production at TheaterWorks through August 26, is rooted in old-fashioned autobiography? Expert director Tracy Brigden (who led the lovely “Midsummer” last season) tells us in her notes that playwright, Robert Askins, like his central character, Jason, grew up in Cypress, Texas; “was a devout Lutheran”; and participated in a puppet club led by his widowed mother. Sweet, right?

Well, actually, the puppets in “Hand to God”—and one in particular—are not so sweet. In fact, one in particular may be Satan himself. In the Lutheran puppet ministry run by his mother and designed to teach youth to love Jesus, read their Bibles, and turn away from sin, Jason (the remarkable Nick LaMedica), the Texas teenager who has tragically lost his father and seeks to please and help his mother in any way he can, makes a wonderfully rendered hand puppet named Tyrone.

Initially, the orange Tyrone with his shock of magenta hair is Jason’s ally: helps Jason overcome some of his social awkwardness, and together they do a killer version of “Who’s On First.” However, far too soon a Satanic version of Tyrone has taken over Jason’s body, his voice, his thoughts, and his life. Tyrone also unleashes demonic doings in nearly every other character and element of the plot. Could he actually be the Devil?

Jason has a crush on his fellow puppeteer, Jessica (a pitch-perfect Maggie Carr), and her puppet, though initially more tractable than Tyrone, still becomes progressively perverse —in every way that you can imagine, and some you likely can’t—as the action proceeds. Jason’s mother, the bereaved Margery (List Velten Smith) is possessed from within, to funny, and ultimately very disturbing, effect. And lust for Margery lives openly in the heart of Margery’s recalcitrant puppet student, Timmy (Miles G. Jackson), and less openly, but more insidiously, in lonely Pastor Greg (Peter Benson).

All of these people—other than the poised and amiable Jessica—are wounded, and their stories of loss and longing are not new. The idea of the Id speaking the unspeakable isn’t new, either, but when the unspeakable comes out of the mouths of an orange Muppet look-alike with teeth; a purple, large-breasted, red-lipped and lascivious doll; a mother who initially appears to be the quintessence of virtue; and the sullen but seemingly harmless neighborhood bad-boy, we listen in a different way.

Brigden has found and directed a cast of actors who, with one exception, hit just the right notes for this raucous journey. As Jason/Tyrone, Nick LaMedica is nothing short of astonishing, switching with lightning speed from the gentle, depressive Jason to the growling and terrifying Tyrone. Miles G. Jackson, as Timmy, perfectly captures the clumsy sexual aggression of a hurt little boy grown up. Pastor Greg is arguably the play’s trickiest character, since the pastor must show both good intentions and squirm-inducing motives without the help of a puppet or a curse word more potent than “Son of a biscuit!”
Brigand makes one misstep, and that is with Lisa Velten Smith as Margery. Here we find a Southern stereotype whose hysterical raging all too quickly robs the character of her potentially fascinating facets. Velten Smith—tall, blonde, and statuesque—looks every inch the role, and in the play’s opening scenes she demonstrates her impeccable comic timing and sensibility. Yet as the character unleashes her unwholesome desires, Velten Smith, under Brigand’s direction, takes an already frenzied Margery too far (believe it or not, that is possible), undercutting the pain that drives this woman and should provide the heart of the show.

Technically, the production brings the script’s humor, biting satire, and salacious action into sharp focus. Lighting Designer Matthew Richards has lit the stage with overly bright and cheerful hues to contrast with the abominations that transpire. Special praise goes to Scenic Designer and Projectionist Luke Cantrella for the inspiring posters and Crayola colors in the classroom and a marvelously realistic car scene. Stephanie Shaw has designed the remarkable puppets, and Sound Designer Elizabeth Atkinson, along with Brigand, has chosen wispy-sweet, children’s songs (“Jesus Loves Me”) that create an atmosphere ripe for evil wreckage. The fight choreography, by Robert Westley, is expert. So be warned: Tyrone may be a puppet, but before the evening is over, there will be blood.

HAND TO GOD runs at TheaterWorks in Hartford, CT through August 26. TheaterWorks is located at 233 Pearl Street, Hartford, CT 06103. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2:30 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. For more information call 860-527-7838 or go to twhartford.org