I knew I was going to like Hand to God when Goodluck Macbeth’s managing director Christopher Daniels told me Robert Askins’ play was “like Avenue Q meets Satan.” I knew I had to see it. What I didn’t expect was that it might actually be the best show I’ve seen … like, ever.
Taking a cue from a real-life trend among Bible Belt churches, Askins’ play tells of a fundamentalist Christian church in Texas where a puppet club has formed as a way of teaching Bible lessons to teenagers. Its leader is the widow Margery (played by Rachel Lopez), who needs the part-time gig now that she’s financially strapped and raising her son Jason (Jessey Richards) all alone. Margery insists that shy and soft-spoken Jason participate in the club, which has only two other members: Timothy (Robert Zellers), an angry, sullen, foul-mouthed teenager who’s stuck there while his mother attends AA meetings, and Jessica (Jesse Briggs), who’s there because it’s the closest she can get to Balinese shadow puppetry, and whom Jason clearly has a crush on.
In the church basement cheesily decorated with “Jesus loves me” posters and cheery biblical quotes, the club meets to prepare for an upcoming performance, but only Jason has actually produced a puppet—a gray sock puppet innocuously named Tyrone.
Though Jason seems a sad, put-upon, childish teen who’s still reeling from his father’s death, with Tyrone on his left hand, he somehow finds the courage to express himself. He begins with comedy routines and dirty jokes, but soon Tyrone is spouting Jason’s deepest, darkest thoughts, leading Pastor Greg (Jesse James Ziegler) and the others to believe Tyrone might actually be the devil himself. Meanwhile, his mother starts expressing her own grief in different but no less disturbing ways.
The acting is across the board outstanding. Though Richards’ mouth never stops moving as Tyrone speaks, there’s no doubt the sock puppet is the living, breathing central character, a truly unsettling embodiment of evil who is completely separate from Jason. Under the tutelage of Reno puppet artist Bernie Beauchamp, Richards has become a masterful puppeteer, and his skill totally blew me away.
As Margery, Rachel Lopez owns the stage, and her remarkable acting skills are cast into sharp relief here. She’ll frighten you and break your heart, yet she is also soft and pitiful and even funny. And though Briggs is a young actor, she may have already reached her career zenith as the puppeteer for Jolene, a naughty female puppet who gives Tyrone a run for his money. I promise you’ll never forget her.
Following the media preview show I attended—a performance that ended with a standing ovation, I might add—I overheard director Amanda Alvey comment that the show “makes you feel all the feels,” and I really couldn’t put it better myself. It’s not just that the play is funny, which it absolutely is. But even as it deals with the most sobering of subjects—religion, death and mental illness—it’s also deeply disturbing, terribly sad, probingly insightful and, yet, also somehow lighthearted and uplifting. I can’t emphasize this enough: Don’t miss it.