Hand to God
It isn't always easy being honest with yourself. We are so wracked with guilt, apprehension, obligation, and other feelings about how we should be acting that we can take great pains from recognizing our truth. It is this conflict that is nestled inside the Christian puppet show being prepared in "Hand To God," which opened last week at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, home to the Philadelphia Theatre Company.
The Tony-nominated "Hand To God" is the story of a widow, Margery, and her son, Jason, as they involve themselves with the local church to put on a puppet show. They are joined by Jessica, a sweet young girl who matches Jason's innocent dorkiness, and Timothy, the bawdy bad boy who is all of the things Jason is not.
Margery tries to focus on the busy work of making puppets to distract from her husband's recent death and the stress she feels trying to maintain a nice Christian lifestyle in her despair, ignoring Jason's dissociative attachment to his puppet Tyrone or Timothy's overt feelings for her.
Tyrone, Jason's puppet, takes on a life of his own early on, and eventually confesses to being the Devil. Either on his own or by bullying Jason into assisting, Tyrone begins to wreak havoc on this little puppet mission and forces everyone to face their feelings and needs, regardless of how wrong they may be.
If this sounds a little bleak for a show that opens with just a spotlight on a puppet poking out of the darkness, don't worry! "Hand To God" was one of the funniest, best-paced plays I have seen. The laughs came easily, the character development believable and sympathetic, and the prop work alone was a joy to witness. This is a show that knows that it can deliver a message while getting full room laughs just with a puppet's change in expression.
That's not to say that the entire cast isn't essential to accomplishing these things. Led by the fearless and hysterical Grace Gonglewski as Margery, the five castmates brought star turns to the production. Matteo Scammell played the alluring bad boy just as perfectly as Alex Keiper did the sensitive, kind love interest, although it was most entertaining to see both of them eventually flip on their characters' natural dispositions to pursue what they wanted.
And while William Zielinski had less stage time as Pastor Greg, his breathless, stammering appeals for Margery's affection were some of my favorite scenes in the show.
But it was Margery and Jason's story when all was said and done. Gonglewski was both a blushing Christian Southern belle and vicious dominatrix and was incredible in giving a believable performance that could include both.
Aubie Merrylees was equally brilliant in his role as both Jason and Tyrone. The range with which he harnessed both of their opposite energies and slowly brought them into the one person that Jason really is was wondrous to watch, and all with the levity that is required to keep the comedic energy of the show. As the two characters came together to admit the loss of Margery's husband and Jason's father was the source of much of what was going on, the heart of the play came alive.
"Hand To God" is one of those bright spots in any season. It is a play that brings audiences incisive commentary and joyful performances all in a highly entertaining package. So much important theater comes from a heavy place, but it is essential to occasionally step outside of that and remember all of the fun that going to a show like this can be.
"Hand To God" runs through April 30 at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre at 480 S. Broad Street. For tickets or information, call 215-985-0420 or visit philadelphiatheatrecompany.org