Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Hand to God
Both comedies get lots of laughs from the collision of evangelicalism and intercourse. Each has that courtly Southern Baptist twang to sanitize varying degrees of torment and desire. And each play is set after the death of a major character. But baby boomers may find they've been laughing in the wrong places in the final moments of Hand to God.
Sordid Lives ultimately embraces the duality of body and spirit, whereas Hand to God pits them one against the other as a kind of bloodsport, to help us cross into another school of Modern Theater entirely. Make no mistake: a top-notch cast, under the outstanding direction of director Andrea Urice, holds the conflict between genres together till a sort of unmasking of story types is revealed in the end. It's just not the framework you were expecting, when the gloves finally come off. I say this because the audience on the night I went seemed put-off by the denouement, which is probably exactly the way it's supposed to work. "Look back in puppet-anger, young man." Then, a moment later, enthusiastic applause at the curtain call made up for the wary reaction to the final monolog.
Askins' play centers on very modern teenagers, and it lands a lot more darkly than Sordid Lives, for a variety of reasons. See it, to be reminded of how much the rules have changed for a newer generation, just as we saw in the post-modern Peanuts-based play from 2005, Dog Sees God. In a faster-paced, more comical vein, Hand to God transmogrifies to become an "angry young man" play for the 21st century, where life-and-spirit dualities remain to be resolved. Much of that is played out through a puppet named Tyrone who becomes monstrous on the hand of its putative owner, Jason.
The pain of losing love ones and of being bullied, and perhaps even all the inevitable concessions that our parents have made along the way, once again reinvent themselves for a new generation. It's still "mostly funny." But it lands an unexpectedly heavy blow at the end. Is it a statement about mental health? Or a lecture on good and evil, from a woefully inexperienced teenager? Either way it's an angry young man, I suppose, thrashing around, looking for a way out. As one does.
There is admirable character development, and a very good psychotic role for actor Mitchell Henry-Eagles (as Jason), who suddenly seems terribly under-used, and (inexplicably) far more youthful than he was in the title role in 2016's seminal Trash Macbeth at ERA Theatre. But as Southern as it is, Hand to God takes a hard turn away from the kind of uplift we find in Del Shores' cult comedy. Robert Askins' hands are cloaked in puppets, but the puppets (as you may have already guessed) speak some pretty raw truths in a Cypress, Texas, church basement.
In fact, maybe it underestimates Hand to God to compare it to Sordid Lives at all, as Mr. Askins' 90-minute play is more broadly about about shifting youthful identity and not at all about the now-familiar anguish of growing up gay in a repressive environment. The repression here is to force unsteady youth to find a quiet way to carry on with the status quo, when so much has changed in their world, and the path ahead seems totally undesirable. We know right away, in Sordid Lives, that the elderly Peggy has died in a scandalous tryst, tripping over the artificial limbs of her married lover. The mystery in Hand to God takes longer to unravel, and ends up with a startling tablespoonful of teenage vinegar at the very end.
Colleen Backer remains the queen of laconic humor in St. Louis as Jason's mom, and Eric Dean White is affably, visibly humiliated as Pastor Greg, again and again. The set, by Patrick Huber and TheatreMarine Productions, nicely changes back and forth like pages in a book. And Josh Rotker and Phoebe Richards are excellent as Jason's longtime Sunday school classmates. As Timmy and Jessica, they may not seem as grounded in decency as most church kids. But they are as real as it gets in every other respect.
Hand to God runs through April 24, 2022, at the Gaslight Theatre, 358 North Boyle Ave., St. Louis MO. For tickets and information visit www.stlas.org.
* Denotes Member, Actors' Equity Association