It’s easy to forget that our words impact others. In both harm and influence, what we say (or chose not to say) can determine others’ actions. Typically, we try to convince others and ourselves that what we say and believe is the truth, particularly in the heat of the moment. And yet, when intensity subsides, it’s seems just as vital to renege on our previous words. Why? Because there’s a frightening belief that suggests who we are when in w heightened state of emotion isn’t who we truly are. Not true. We are who we are, and what we say is a part of that. Of course, we’re all guilty of succumbing to the temptations of vocal missteps which, at the time, feel appropriate, but a voice is a powerful weapon. Be careful how you use it, and where you aim it.
Hand to God by Robert Askins follows Jason, a teenager in his mother’s church youth group, sometime after his father passed away. While preparing for a puppet show for the church, Jason’s sock puppet, Tyrone, takes on a life of his own as a foul-mouthed, malicious creature possibly possessed by Satan. Meanwhile, the rest of the youth group has to contend with Tyrone’s presence as well as their conflicting needs from one another.
As I’ve come to expect from Capital T’s productions, the set design is phenomenally detailed. Set mainly in the church’s basement classroom, the stage was immediately reminiscent of safe and friendly classrooms from elementary school, from the colorful furniture to the copious posters and papers reminding the kids to work together, wash their hands, and (in this case) listen to Jesus. Furthermore, the set is littered with little surprise effects that I won’t spoil for you here, but they are most certainly effective. And yet, what truly impressed me with Mark Pickell’s set was how many hidden (dare I call them) sub-sets unfolded from the walls to create new locations. The only trouble with the set came from a sluggish set change or two between scenes in which the crew clearly struggled with some of the larger movable objects.
In short, each member of Hand to God’s cast performed excellently, but some gave more nuanced performances than others. Chase Brewer (Jason/Tyrone) immediately struck me with his thousand-yard stare that suggested something is not right with him. Having to act as both Jason and Tyrone throughout the majority of the show, Brewer clearly defines both characters early on through a drastic change of voice; Jason sounds a bit dumbfounded and somewhat stubborn about recent events while Tyrone is crackly and gruff at every moment. As for Tyrone’s design, he begins as simple though well-crafted orange and blue fellow whose only unassuming trait is his voice (and what he says with it). However, plot elements quickly change Tyrone to a “Frankensteined” state of stitches, dark eyes, and an intimidating mouth full of teeth. The introduction to the latter Tyrone was made all the creepier by Patrick Anthony’s lighting design, effectively signaling the arrival of the Devil onstage. And yet, what I enjoyed most about Brewer’s performance (and Askins’s script) was the uncertainty on Jason’s mental state. Is he truly possessed by the Devil or is Tyrone merely a fracture in Jason’s mind following his father’s death? Askins drops clues in favor of both possibilities, and the production is all the stronger for not giving us a clear answer.
Rebecca Robinson and Kenneth Wayne Bradley (Margery and Pastor Greg respectively) fleshed out the cast nicely both by being the most conflicted characters in the production. Robinson follows up her previous Capital T performance as Sandra in Trevor as Margery who, incidentally, also clings to the only family she has after the death of her husband. Not that I wish to suggest the concept is tiresome; Robinson was excellent in Trevor and she gives a powerful performance in Hand to God as well. Robinson is at once the most pitiable and agitating presence onstage as she is clearly working her way through intense grief, and yet her actions constantly bring pain and confusion to those around her. Particularly to Pastor Greg. Bradley, as Greg, was impressive in a similar manner to Robinson in that I at once pitied and hated him. He’s harsh, demanding, and condescending, and yet speaks with the soothing reassurance of a pastor. He means well yet has selfish ambitions like anyone else, and those desires often lead to Bradley playing the role of a manipulator. It’s a role that wouldn’t be able to work if the actor behind it was too overt, but Bradley offers a gentle touch to Greg’s machinations. Oftentimes it takes a moment to realize how backhanded he can be behind his seemingly kind voice. Rounding are Brad Rothwell and Teresa Baldwin (Timothy and Jessica respectively). Both give solid performances, but I found myself less enthused with them. This is most likely that, while far from one-dimensional, Timothy and Jessica as character simply aren’t as deep as the rest of the cast. Timothy is a horny teenager with plenty of bottled-up frustration to go around, and Jessica is the shy, dorky, kind girl who wants the best for everyone. There was nothing wrong with Rothwell or Baldwin, but ultimately there’s only so far someone can take these characters.
Continuing Capital T Theatre’s trend of “things that shouldn’t talk” (recently including a chimp in Trevor, a rooster in Year of the Rooster, and a dumbwaiter in The Dumb Waiter), Hand to God is a delightful dark depiction of repression and expression clashing beneath the influence of the Devil and above the hopes of the church. Whether you go for the racy humor or the psychological and theological ramifications, Hand to God is certain to provide you with an entertaining evening, a healthy dose of bad laughs, and a rightful apprehension to ever pick up another sock puppet for as long as you live.
Hand to God by Capital T Theatre continues playing at the Hyde Park Theatre every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8pm until September 17th.