Texas-born playwright Robert Askins grew up going to church where puppet ministries were used to teach life lessons from the Bible. In his play Hand to God, Askins explores the complex duality of human nature and the battle against the self. He created a little puppet named Tyrone to ask a big question, “Do you think devilish thoughts?”
The five-time Tony-nominated Hand to God came to Addison where scenic designer Richard Ouellette has created a set that will feel familiar to anyone who attended church as a kid. He completely transformed WaterTower Theatre into Our Savior Lutheran Church’s Family Community Center, filling every nook with posters of cute animals invoking messages of God’s love. Every wall is covered with banners printed with phrases such as Praise Him, Alleluia and Peace on Earth. In this immersive theater experience, audience members sit in the church hall’s kiddie chairs making sock puppets with pipe cleaners.
In typical Southern style, adults are called by their title followed by their first names, like Pastor Greg who reminds everyone to “Have a blessed day.” Following the death of her husband, Miss Margery is keeping busy by preparing the puppet ministry kids, “The Christketeers,” to teach Old Testament lessons. Her mild-mannered son Jason has been preparing a song about Jesus with his seemingly ordinary puppet, Tyrone.
But things quickly turn dark — really dark. Before the show ends, the action moves to the basement where lighting magician Keith Parham uses projections to transform Our Savior Church into the Den of the Devil, Lucifer’s Lair. Pastor Greg has put down his Bible and now carries a book called Devils, Demons and Spiritual Warfare while considering the possibility of using exorcism to remove Tyrone, aka Satan, from Jason’s arm.
The amazing Parker Gray embodied the innocent and confused Jason, whose life is taken over by the puppet Tyrone. Jason insists that he doesn’t want to be bad, but Tyrone becomes more and more powerful. Tyrone began as a foul-mouthed, sex-crazed puppet and has now slid down the slippery slope that begins with sinful thoughts and has become the violent embodiment of the devil. Gray simultaneously played these two polar opposites, able to flawlessly match his facial expression, voice and demeanor to Jason even when the evil Tyrone is speaking.
With her spot-on Texas twang and Sunday school teacher demeanor, the talented Shannon McGrann plays the multi-dimensional Margery, Jason’s loving but needy mother. She's later disillusioned with the church and God, and Margery’s despair is palpable as she desperately tears pages from a Bible. Margery’s hidden and darker self is revealed in a couple of wild sex scenes with the disturbingly young Timothy. The charming and well-tressed Garret Storms perfectly plays Timothy, the bad church kid dressed in black.
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Debbie Ruegsegger is fellow Chrisketeer and Jason’s love interest, Jessica, who asks Jason/Tyrone a probing question about what it means to be human: “Do you want to be a shallow, violent and foul-mouthed puppet the rest of your life?” Ruegsegger also proved herself to be a master puppeteer during a scene involving puppet sex. Watching her facial expression serves as a welcome way to avert your eyes from the extremely long puppet sex scene.
Thomas Ward gives a convincing performance as Pastor Greg, whose failed attempts to woo Margery through loneliness and vulnerability reveal his manipulative nature.
The superb cast under the well-balanced directing of Joanie Schultz kept this disturbing but strangely hilarious show focused on the big question of the violent and destructive aspects that inhabit humans. Touching performances revealed the darkest secrets, thoughts and struggles of each character.