Regional Reviews: Boston
Hand to God
Tyrone is an appendage on the arm of Jason (Eliott Purcell), a Texas teenager silently suffering under the weight of enormous grief after the death of his father. His widowed mother Margery (Marianna Bassham) tries to put the pieces of her shattered life back together by running a puppet ministry (The Christcateers, I kid you not) at the Lutheran Church led by well-meaning but rather inept Pastor Greg (Lewis D. Wheeler). Margery's small troupe also includes Jessica (Josephine Elwood), the object of Jason's clumsy desire, and bad boy Timothy (Dario Ladani Sanchez), whose all-black attire projects his sense of self. They form a damaged quintet, each in an existential struggle against a personal demon that strangely bonds them together. Askins explores serious questions of good vs. evil, genuine faith vs. dogma, and whether or not love saves.
Director David R. Gammons has a track record of success with some of the edgier works produced at SpeakEasy Stage, among them Necessary Monsters, The Motherfucker with the Hat, and Blackbird, and he masterfully picks his way through the minefield that Askins has laid out. Designers Cristina Todesco (scenic), Jeff Adelberg (lighting), and Andrew Duncan Will (sound) evoke the arena for the deranged goings-on in a church basement. Using flashing lights, crashes of thunder, and a gravelly echo effect for the puppet's voice, they convey the idea of the devil manifested as sock puppet. Although there are no projectiles, and his head does not rotate on its axis, Purcell thrashes and stumbles about as if possessed, helpless against Tyrone's tyrannical power.
Purcell's performance is remarkable, not just for authentically portraying Jason's adolescent angst, but most especially for the seamless duality of being two characters simultaneously. With kudos to Roxanna Myhrum for puppetry direction, it is up to Purcell to make us believe that Tyrone is a living entity, both part of and separate from Jason, and he does it so convincingly that the puppet takes on a life of its own, and their conversations feel like dialogue, not monologue. There are many more moments of believing that Tyrone is an autonomous being than there are of seeing Jason simply as a disturbed kid, perhaps suffering from multiple personality disorder, who just happens to be talking to a decorated sock.
It's great to see Bassham back at SpeakEasy Stage putting her stamp on the conflicted mother. Margery's conflicts are many and Bassham sinks her teeth into the character when she is tightly wound, as well as when she springs loose, or, perhaps more aptly, when she runs amok. Her scenes with Sanchez (making his SpeakEasy debut) range from simmering to explosive and he matches her stride for stride. Timothy is a bully with the other teens, disrespectful to the long-suffering pastor, but single-minded in his pursuit of Margery's attention. Sanchez captures both his devilishness and his boyishness. Wheeler smoothly traverses Pastor Greg's arc, starting out as the pristine good guy, but eventually displaying the flaws and strengths in his character. Although Jessica is often left out of the action, Elwood makes the most of her big scene when her puppet Jolene has a close encounter with Tyrone.
Hand to God premiered Off-Broadway in 2011 and had two additional OB runs before opening on Broadway in 2015 and playing the West End in London in 2016. The show is one of the most produced plays in America this theater season with thirteen productions scheduled. It is tailor made for regional theater, with its relatively small cast and topics that resonate across a broad spectrum. That being said, it contains a significant amount of profanity, the humor is very dark, and it does throw some shade on organized religion, so it may not be for everyone. At the performance I attended, there were noticeably a few vacated seats following intermission. Too bad they didn't stick around to watch love trump hate.
[Note: Playwright Robert Askins will be coming to see the production on Thursday, January 12, and will be doing a talkback after the show.]
Hand to God, performances through February 4, 2017, at SpeakEasy Stage Company, Wimberly Theatre in the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-933-8600 or www.SpeakEasyStage.com.
Written by Robert Askins, Directed by David R. Gammons; Scenic Design, Cristina Todesco; Costume Design, Gail Astrid Buckley; Lighting Design, Jeff Adelberg; Sound Design, Andrew Duncan Will; Fight Direction, Ted Hewlett; Puppetry Direction, Roxanna Myhrum; Puppet Design, Jonathan Little; Production Stage Manager, Dawn Schall Saglio; Assistant Stage Manager, Julie Marie Langevin
Cast (in alphabetical order): Marianna Bassham, Josephine Elwood, Eliott Purcell, Dario Ladani Sanchez, Lewis D. Wheeler