Hand to God – Review by Tom Nissley

This is the best and funniest show I’ve seen in a long time. If you go, a part of you will say ‘this has nothing to do with me.’ Another part will scream ‘yes it does.’

The play, written by Robert Askins, and directed by Tracy Brigden, tells a convoluted story of a mother (widowed), her teen-aged son, a neighbor girl who likes him, and a delinquent classmate. Oh yes, and the pastor of their little Bible-thumping Lutheran church in a small town in Texas. It uses human actors and several wonderful hand-puppets. The concept seems easy. Pastor Greg (Peter Benson) has encouraged Margery (Lisa Velten Smith) to keep up with a puppet ministry project for teen-agers as a way to divert her grief when her husband died from a heart attack. Her son, Jason (Nick LaMedica) is a star member of the puppet group, along with their neighbor, Jessica (Maggie Carr), and another boy named Tim (Miles G. Jackson), who has a crush on Margery and focuses on seducing her [even though she’s the adult in the room and he’s her pupil, Tim is the aggressor here].

Pastor Greg also has eyes on Margery. While he’s helping her deal with her grief he mentions that he also knows the loneliness of waking alone and wishing for someone to be there. Margery has no trouble refusing Greg. But she does do a Mrs. Robinson thing with Tim that changes the dynamic.

Meanwhile, there are problems for Jason. He is his mother’s best student and her pride and joy. He lives and breathes and even sleeps with his hand-puppet, ‘Tyrone,’ always on his arm. Nick LaMedica is one of the most skilled actors I have ever seen, and he pulls off this double role so perfectly that he immediately earns a Ridgelea award for the performance.

Because he is showing us how multiple personalities develop. In this case, in Jason, whose never-off hand puppet, Tyrone, takes over his life and all the others, becoming the main managing character of this crazy ensemble, until Jessica has an idea that get’s Tyrone’s full attention and with it, breaks through to Jason. Spoiler alert. Jessica’s hand puppet, Jolene, having a vibrant sexual encounter with Tyrone is outrageously profound puppetry. It is what leads to a genuine happy ending for the teen-agers, and their audience.

“Hand to God” is regularly described as irreverent. That’s not at all the right adjective. It would be better to call it surreal. For church folks who might take Christian education seriously in real life, the context is disappointing. The immature Tyrone singing “Jesus loves me” is a poor token to represent great hymns and great liturgy and liberation faith. Askins uses it as a metaphor to show how religion suppresses growth and personal freedom. Ms. Brigden directs from that perspective. It works well, considering where her players are stuck in their respective uneducated journeys, so I’ll save debating the point for a talk-back, but there is an argument for the power of the great liturgies of Judaism and Christianity and other major religions to actually lead to growth.

But you’ll be cheating only yourself if you don’t get to see this remarkable show. The set, lighting, sound, costumes, and other amenities are all wonderful. Go to www.theaterworkshartford.org or call 860-527-7838 to get information and tickets.

Tom Nissley for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre