A cast of six — five humans and the Devil, in the shape of a vulgar hand puppet — have taken over the Theatre in the Park’s stage in Robert Askins’ hilarious, raunchy, and weirdly scary Hand to God. With slapstick humor, dark and mature themes, and more than enough twists for the adult audience, the Tony Award®-nominated play brought the house down Saturday night.
The story opens with Margery (Kathy Day), a proper Texas widow attempting to control her Sunday school class, who are rehearsing for a Christian puppet show. Her shy and grieving son, Jason (director Ira David Wood IV), young and flirty Jessica (Lorelei Lemon), and sarcastically rebellious Timmy (Kenny Hertling) tease each other unmercifully, using their puppets to say the things they might be too afraid to voice otherwise. But Margery can’t corral the kids enough to feel confident about presenting the play; and when Timmy proves too much to handle, she allows him to seduce her, the first indication that there’s a dark, sinister being at work.
That being, the puppet at the end of young Jason’s hand, morphs into the devilishly comedic Tyrone. The way Wood varies his voice to embody both the adolescent boy grieving the death of his father, his voice occasionally cracking, as well as the gruff and maniacal voice of the satanic puppet with a thirst for blood, is masterful. At times, the conversation is between the split personalities pieces, and Ira Wood’s timing is perfect. The role is a demanding one, yet Wood manages the histrionics, as well as the quieter moments, with ease.
The action is often frantic, and the dialogue is so punchy that some lines were lost in the laughter provoked by the previous one. Each of the characters is at his/her own pitch of terror from the very beginning, often causing a chaos of both physical and story movement that allows the one soft and slow character (Jessica) to be highlighted.
When Jessica physically stops, stands, and delivers a quiet line, it’s often at a moment that produces a punch; but several of her lines were lost to most in the audience, though the front rows responded delightedly. Lorelei Lemon, like Wood, juggles two roles, that of the flirty Jessica, almost as shy and reticent as Jason, and that of the puppet Jolene. A scene of the two puppets enthusiastically performing multiple sex acts brings the audience to tears-running-down-your-face laughter.
Pastor Greg (Chris Brown) is even tempted by the sinister presence, and tries to lure the widow Margery into an illicit affair. She’s not tempted by Pastor Greg; but she is very much tempted by the much younger and more dangerous Timmy. The complicated nature of their relationships once again underlines the theme of grief and adolescence, and the struggle between right and wrong, good and bad, religion and human nature.
The ensemble works well together as the story dissolves into a weirdly constructed commentary on religion and the ways people attempt to live within/without its boundaries. Each of the characters is developed by their dialogue and the exchanges they have with each other. Lines are crossed and double-crossed, but it’s kudos to playwright Robert Askins that each relationship is mettle for a scene.
The Ira David Wood III Pullen Park Theatre is the perfect location for a play with few moving parts, and Ira Wood’s direction has given a necessary choreography to the mix of action and smart dialogue. The surprise isn’t the laughter; it’s the way this play makes you think.
SECOND OPINION: April 18th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: https://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/hand-to-god/Event?oid=11110361; and April 8th Raleigh, NC News & Observer mini-preview by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/article206900694.html.
Theatre in the Park presents HAND TO GOD at 3 p.m. April 22, 7:30 p.m. April 26-28, 3 p.m. April 29, 7:30 p.m. May 4 and 5, and 3 p.m. May 6 in the Ira David Wood III Pullen Park Theatre, 107 Pullen Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina 27607.
TICKETS: $24 ($18 students, seniors 60+, and active-duty military personnel), except $16 per ticket for groups of 10 or more.
BOX OFFICE: 919-831-6058 or https://theatreinthepark.secure.force.com/ticket#details_a0S41000005fsqAEAQ.
GROUP RATES (10+ tickets): 919-831-6058 or http://theatreinthepark.com/whatson/group-sales.
NOTE 1: All shows are wheelchair/walker accessible, and large-print playbills are usually available.
NOTE 2: TIP cautions that this is a show “For mature audiences only!”
Hand to God (2011 and 2014 Off-Broadway and 2015 Broadway comedy): http://www.ensemblestudiotheatre.org/new-events-3/2012/10/31/hand-to-god and http://www.handtogodbroadway.com/ (official websites), https://www.dramatists.com/cgi-bin/db/single.asp?key=5140 (Dramatists Play Service, Inc.), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/Production/6522 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), http://www.ibdb.com/broadway-show/hand-to-god-498572 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hand_to_God_(play) (Wikipedia).
The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
Robert Askins (Cypress, TX-born playwright): http://www.ensemblestudiotheatre.org/robert-askins/ (Ensemble Studio Theatre bio), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/42917 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), http://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/robert-askins-498574 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://www.imdb.com/name/nm4952112/ (Internet Movie Database).
Ira David Wood IV (Raleigh, NC director and TIP’s assistant artistic director): http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0939505/ (Internet Movie Database), https://www.facebook.com/ira.d.wood (Facebook page), and https://twitter.com/iradavidwoodiv (Twitter page).
Dawn Reno Langley is the award-winning author of The Mourning Parade, as well as other novels, children’s books, nonfiction books, essays, short stories, poems, and articles. She is the creator of The Writer’s Hand Journals and runs workshops on using journals in every walk of life. A Fulbright Scholar, she holds the MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier, VT, and the PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies from Union Institute and University. She lives in Durham with her dog, Izzy. To read all of Dawn Langley’s Triangle Review reviews online at Triangle Arts and Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/dawn-reno-langle/.