By TERRENCE GIRARD
My wife Peg and I attended the final dress rehearsal of the Henegar’s HAND TO GOD. This was the first time the cast had performed the show in front of an audience – any audience, let alone one of encouraging and supportive theater insiders who shrieked with laughter throughout.
The play opens in a Sunday school classroom at a Lutheran church somewhere in Texas, where recently widowed Margery is trying without much success to get the three members of her teenage puppetry ministry ready for their first performance. One of the teens, Margery’s son Jason, grudgingly gives voice to his puppet Tyrone; being forced to take part in the ministry adds stress to his relationship with his mother, already strained in the wake of his father’s death. The other students, bad boy Timmy and good girl Jessica, aren’t much interested in puppets, either, and have been plopped into the program by disinterested parents.Margery’s unhappiness is exacerbated by unwanted overtures from the church’s Pastor Greg, and by her disturbing reciprocal attraction to handsome young Timmy. Her world falls even further apart when Jason’s puppet Tyrone begins to exhibit offensive and eventually violent behavior. Is Jason acting out in the emotionally troubled aftermath of his father’s death? Or is Tyrone truly possessed by the devil?
Stakes don’t get much higher than a Biblical fight between good and evil, and the cast all tackle their roles with go-for-broke gusto. Shane Frampton’s Margery is sad yet comical as she grapples with conflicting urges before finally yielding to outrageous and taboo desires. She elicits compassion and exasperation in equal measure as Margery piles one bad decision on top of another to derail her trainwreck of a life.Damon Dennin’s Timmy deftly walks a tightrope balancing surly punk and smitten teenager, gleefully breaking the furniture in one moment, and in the next, poignantly heartbroken when his love is rejected. As Pastor Greg, David Hill avoids skewering the easy target of a small-town preacher, and instead shows a man rising beyond his own thwarted romantic interest to take on the evil he sees enveloping those around him. And Kirstin Williams gives nuance and depth to Jessica, the no-nonsense high school girl who reaches out to help Jason through his crisis.
But it’s Logan Ayala who shines as Jason and his alter-ego Tyrone, convincing as two distinct characters who devolve into a more and more furious battle of wills. Tyrone is pure Id, a foul-mouthed, raging manifestation of Jason’s roiling adolescent frustration. As such, he’s often hilariously profane, giving way to violent impulses normally kept under wraps in polite society. Ayala conveys not only the empowerment Tyrone gives the otherwise meek Jason, but also the boy’s mounting fear as he realizes he’s in danger of being completely submerged by Tyrone’s increasingly savage personality.
At one point, Jessica tentatively reaches out to Jason using her own puppet, hoping to connect to him through Tyrone – who instantly ravages his female counterpart. The sight of the two puppets engaged in vigorous, um, lovemaking, while their teenage operators innocently plan a date to homecoming, is startling and hilarious in its incongruity, and typifies the play’s blend of shocks and laughs.
It’s to playwright Robert Askin’s credit that this is all both very funny and also unsettling. HAND TO GOD opened off-Broadway in 2011 and then on Broadway in 2015, where it received a much deserved Best Play Tony Award nomination.
Director Hank Rion orchestrates the elements into a smooth, well-paced production that includes cool lighting effects (by Josh Huss) and a versatile, quick-changing set (designed by Brighid Reppert). This is a great addition to the Henegar’s Upstairs series, so make your reservations, as the run is selling out, and arrive early for best seating; the theater’s configuration can make sight lines for downstage action tricky.
After Mr. Girard posted his comments on Facebook, BREVARD CULTURE reached out to him requesting that he expand his insights into a full review. Thank you Terry!
SIDE O’ GRITS: “Hand to God” runs through Sept. 25 in the Upstairs at the Henegar studio theater on the second floor of the Henegar Center, 625 E. New Haven Ave., Melbourne. Curtain is 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $20 general admission and $18 for seniors and military. Student tickets are $15, but people under the age of 17 are not allowed unless accompanied by an adult. The play contains profanity, adult situations, graphic violence and partial nudity. Call 321-723-8698, visit Henegar.org or click onto their ad.