Interesting things happen when emotions are repressed. Sometimes they're channeled into a hobby and possibly great art, such as a symphony, a sculpture or a play. Or, as in the case of Hand to God, grief may turn a hand puppet into a Freudian id that dominates family dynamics.
In the Tony-nominated play, presented by The Storyville Collective at The Theatre at St. Claude, Jason (John Fitzpatrick), who is recovering from the death of his father, participates in an after-school puppet workshop at a Christian church, coordinated by his mother, Margery Stevens. Without warning, Jason's sock puppet Tyrone takes on an evil life of its own (even growing a set of teeth) and spews venomous, uncensored social commentary.
It's a little embarrassing to laugh out loud at these mild-mannered Christians' misery, but Hand of God deftly exposes basic human weaknesses by unearthing people's forbidden fantasies.
Fitzpatrick doesn't attempt to become a ventriloquist, but his puppetry is still powerful as he struggles to subdue Tyrone, who has no qualms about shouting what everyone else is feeling. The actor manipulates the puppet with such realism that it's a simple leap to see Tyrone as a real character and not just Jason's split personality. One starts to wonder if Tyrone is merely acting out Jason's repressed rage or if he has indeed become the Antichrist. The New York Times described Hand to God as "Sesame Street meets The Exorcist."
Playwright Robert Askins grew up in a small Texas town, attended a conservative Christian church with a puppet ministry and also lost his father, so he knows the subject matter. He took the name Tyrone from Eugene O'Neill's dark, depressive family drama Long Day's Journey into Night.
Jason is torn between his inner demon and his attraction for the simple goodness of his classmate Jessica (Meredith Owens), but Tyrone gives voice to Jason's base instincts.
Meanwhile, the frazzled widow Margery tries to be cheerful while seemingly coming apart at the seams. She coaxes her students into puppet arts while denying her own emotional pain. Bluntly rejecting the Rev. Greg's (Michael Harkins) clumsy advances ("Try me, you'll like me."), she instead succumbs to the bold, temptations of an underage student, Timothy (Kyle Woods). The impetuous Timothy begs Margery to tell him what to do. "I'll break things for you," he says, scattering books and throwing chairs across the stage. Margery is so off-kilter, she's surprised when the Rev. Greg announces he will contact the authorities.
All the while, a portrait of the Sacred Heart of Jesus looks down on the scene, and a poster implores youngsters to "Welcome Jesus into Your Family Today."
Despite the absurdity, the actors evoke compassion for these flawed characters, who are trying so hard to be good, but are angry as hell. We identify with them and blame Tyrone for causing their misery, when he is just an unrecognized part of us.