By Joel Applegate
Hand to God (Nominated for five Tonys and Winner of the Obie) is more than just having fun tweaking a religious nose. American Christianity in its current form gains traction by saying there’s a “war on religion.” But it’s the opposite. For generations now – with antecedents in the Eisenhower administration – religion has been warring on the rest of us. The result: Psychosis, un-earned guilt, poverty of spirit. This is what playwright, Robert Askins, puts me in mind of in this light-seeming “parfait”, anchored by big themes of self-identity and God.
Combining an hilarious script with skilled puppetry, the ensemble turns Sunday school into a foul-mouthed, colorful parade of personal demons. The hand puppet, Tyrone (worse for wear), under actor Riley O’Toole’s control, is a bonafied character of its own, and the antagonistic source of revelation and violence. Tyrone’s prelude to the play drew impulsive applause from the audience.
The premise has Sunday school teacher, Margery (played by SLAC veteran Alexandra Harbold), instructing the kids on puppetry, using them to entertain – if not enlighten – the parochial congregation with their scripted Bible stories. Tyrone has his own say in this. These “Christ-Ka-Teers”, as their pastor (Daniel Beecher) calls them, are at first gentle ribbers of America’s dumbed-downed religious doctrines. Tyrone explodes these hypocrisies in a storm of vicious bombs.
One of the Sunday school kids is blond Timothy, played with stark assurance by Nathan Vaughn. Tim loves his Sunday School teacher, Margery – I mean, really loves her. Margery is also the object of desire for Pastor Greg, whose barely masked carnality doesn’t fool Margery. His “offering of self” replaces true ministry. But it is Harbold as nearly-manic Margery who calls the shots. After rejecting the pastor’s advances, Margery sees through to herself, too, allowing Tim to seduce her, but only on her terms – amounting to child abuse in a court of law – never mind that it’s entirely fueled by Tim’s hormones.
As if this wasn’t complicated enough, Jason, Margery’s son, is also in the classroom. (I’ve always imagined Sunday Schools in basements because that’s where mine was, and Gage Williams’ flexible set certainly reminded me of it again.) Jason’s mom really just wants to be left alone, with her dark recesses intact under a mask of propriety.
But it’s Tyrone calling the shots for Jason. Robert Askins (in the audience with us for opening night) wrote program notes about the various interpretations that have been staged around the country. Is Jason suffering from personality disorder? Is he possessed by the devil? Is the puppet? Is Tyrone, being a dark-side ego, Jason’s bully? “We’re all we got” Tyrone tells Jason. After the hilarious first act climax, is Jason really left with a demon limb? Will there be an exorcism in Act Two?
As Act Two opens, it is the Pastor who has to face Jason and his scratchy sock persona, Tyrone. This could be a thankless role for an actor – just a liberal meme – but Daniel Beecher handles it because we see him forced to drop his holy posture, become human and meet his parishioner, Margery, where she lives and not where he wants her to be.
And it is Beecher as Pastor in one of the few quiet moments, who jump-starts Jason’s awakening when he tells Jason he must decide “who comes out of the room” – the boy or the puppet. It’s been debated before, but Hand to God posits the old question, did humans invent the Devil because we need him as a counterpoint?
About Jason. In the interest of set-up, I’ve buried the lead. He’s the real boy – again played by O’Toole – with the puppet, Tyrone. Early on, they demonstrate agile expertise with the old “Who’s On First” routine. The crucial lynchpin upon which the play develops is Tyrone as an extension of Jason, both physically and, more importantly, psychically, an eerily convincing feat of craftsmanship.
O’Toole as Jason is intense and vulnerable all in the same performance. By the end, he has at last crossed a boundary that we hope he never has to breach again. The role of Jason/Tyrone is a gem for any young actor, and in the hands of O’Toole, it’s a tour-de-force. I doubt I will ever see another actor handle both sides of a personality with such deftness and clear separation. If this young man is not to become a force to reckon with in the acting world, I’ve missed my guess by a mile. He gives us the one performance this year Salt Lake audiences should not miss.
I love SLAC. I’ve never seen a performance there that didn’t fail to elicit belly laughs first, followed by thoughtful reflection. See it by May 14th.
Salt Lake Acting Company (SLAC)
168 West 500 North
Salt Lake City, Utah 84103-1762
Box Office: 801-363-7522
Box Office Hours: Monday – Friday: 9AM – 6PM, also Saturday/Sunday during run of show: 12PM – 9PM
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