Set in Cypress, Texas, the majority of “Hand to God” takes place in the basement of a church ministry in a room that resembles a preschool; the walls are adorned with colorful posters praising Jesus and toys and stuffed animals are all over the room. Jason (Steven Boyer) is a meek teenager, trying not to look mortified as his widowed mother, Margery (Geneva Carr), prepares a small group of young volunteers for a Christian puppet show. Joining him are the apathetic and contemptuous Timothy (Michael Oberholtzer), who is smitten with a much older Margery, and the deadpan Jessica (Sarah Stiles), who is somewhat interested in puppets. Overseeing them all is Pastor Greg (Marc Kudisch), a charming priest who attempts to woo Margery with Bible talk. Jason constructs Tyrone, a small hand puppet to be used in the show, who eventually is the antagonist of the play.
One day, Tyrone, a mute critter, begins talking in a guttural snarl from Jason’s own mouth. Then, he begins spitting out vulgar insinuations about Jason’s budding feelings for Jessica, putting their relationship on an uncomfortable strain. Jason tries to silence Tyrone, the impish embodiment of his inward desires, but the puppet threatens, “If you try so much as to take me off your hand, next time you wake up it’ll be me stapled to your arm.” Tyrone soon becomes the dominant force, imposing his evil whims onto Jason, leading to both disaster and hilarity.
The entire cast is commendable across the boards, but Boyer is a tour de force in his multifaceted performance as the innocent, soft-spoken Jason and the otherworldly, vulgar Tyrone. It’s alarming, almost frightening, how quickly he jumps to and from these polar opposite personalities, conveying Tyrone’s overbearing dominance and Jason’s fearful submission one after the other, or even at the same time.
Jason’s scuffle with Tyrone is not the only un-Christian atrocity seen in “Hand to God”. Margery becomes sexually involved with Timothy. Their tryst is one of the more absurd subplots of the play, as he seduces her into abandoning her religious convictions. Mutilation, exorcisms, and a puppet sex scene that puts “Avenue Q” to shame all ensue in these 115 minutes. Despite all these monstrosities, they all seem to incorporate humor well through the show.
In different ways, every character in the play carries these hidden desires, but have always refused to act on them. Askins suggests that concealing vices is not only unhealthy in the short run, but ultimately leads to disaster. With that in mind, Tyrone may not be the devil, but rather a very frustrated Jason finally unleashing all of his anger and hormonal urges through Tyrone.
With a perfect balance between satire and humanity, “Hand to God” has become an unlikely hit. Above all, the play takes just about everything that makes the world as terrifying as it is and turns it into something at which we can laugh.