Rachel Weinberg has been a freelance theater critic around Chicago for more than three years. She is currently pursuing a Masters of Science in Integrated Marketing Communications from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Prior to that, Rachel worked for two years in digital marketing at Goodman Theatre and spent a season as a Marketing Apprentice for Roundabout Theatre Company in New York City. You can read all of Rachel's reviews at RachelWeinbergReviews.com and find her on Twitter @RachelRWeinberg.
Alex Weisman, Curtis Edward Jackson, and Nina Ganet in HAND TO GOD.
Review: HAND TO GOD at Victory Gardens Theater
By Rachel Weinberg
Robert Askins’s fiercely hilarious, dark, and moving HAND TO GOD makes its Chicago debut in a sublime and visceral production at Victory Gardens Theater under the deft (but not sock puppeted) hand of Gary Griffin.
HAND TO GOD takes place in a small town in Texas where Margery, who is grieving the recent loss of her husband, takes comfort in teaching Christian Puppet Ministry to students at the local church—including her painfully shy and awkward son Jason, his rebellious classmate Timothy, and the sweet, creatively minded Jessica (who also happens to be Jason’s crush). Jason finds comfort in his carefully crafted puppet Tyrone (excellent puppetry work by Daniel Dempsey throughout)…that is, until Tyrone takes on a foul-mouthed, unabashedly honest life of his own. And while Tyrone may be the only one laying naughty truths bare, it soon becomes clear that some of the others in the churchgoing community have some dirty secrets and desires of their own (including Pastor Greg, who actually makes his feelings for Margery quite explicit).
Askins’s brilliant playwriting gives HAND TO GOD a swift and hilarious pace that unspools to become both incredibly heartfelt and downright satanic in moments. This all takes place on Joe Schermoly’s artful rotating set, with some delicious thematic details also echoed in Janice Pytel’s costumes and Christine Binder’s lighting. Through the guise of Tyrone, HAND TO GOD explores the tension between the words and values of a good Christian community and the inner, more sinful thoughts its members harbor within. While Jason timidly tries to entertain Jessica in an early sequence using bits from Abbott and Costello’s famous “Who’s On First?” routine, it is Tyrone who later blares some of his host’s more impure thoughts about her. And though Tyrone’s actions certainly have disastrous effects both for Jason and the churchgoers, HAND TO GOD also suggests that sometimes blatant honesty is, indeed, the best and more admirable route in place of platitudes. And that, for better or worse, we must also own up to our actions—instead of blaming the devil (or, in this case, an evil puppet).
HAND TO GOD’s cast is consistently stellar. Alex Weisman has a challenging order to fill in playing both the timid Jason and the outrageous Tyrone—and he handles both deftly and fully gives into each role. This is especially evident in a bedroom scene between Jason and Tyrone. Weisman truly makes it seem believable that there are two characters in that room having a conversation, and he bestows boy and puppet with a very distinct set of mannerisms. Janelle Snow makes a lovely turn as Margery, nailing both her character’s affection and grief but also her intense anger—and she’s not afraid to embrace Margery’s more visceral moments. Eric Slater delightfully toes the line between the role of the well-intentioned church leader while also maintaining a fittingly uncomfortable sliminess in his delivery. Nina Ganet gives her all to Jessica, the picture of sugary sweetness and genuine friendliness in her earlier interactions with Weisman as Jason/Tyrone, while also going full-throttle in a shocking second act scene. Curtis Edward Jackson nails the part of rebellious, grumpy teenager Timothy but also makes us empathize with him in a particularly traumatic moment.
Overall HAND TO GOD is a theatrical whirlwind that takes audiences from laugh-out-loud, outrageous comedy to moments of intense darkness and pure emotion—all of which are balanced in Askins’s brilliant, bold play.