by Dexter Brigham
As I was driving home from opening night of Hand to God, the latest installment in Pit and Balcony’s After Dark series, I realized it was the summer solstice: the day when the light reaches it peak, and the dark begins to eat away at it, beginning the slow march back to the depressing darkness of winter. It struck me as just about the perfect night to see this twisted comedy by Robert Askins, which explores the daily struggle between nurturing our better angels and feeding our worst instincts.
Askins’ play, which was nominated for five Tony Awards, including Best New Play, when it premiered on Broadway in 2015, centers on a teenage boy, Jason (Nathan Hanley), and his mother, Margery (Danielle Katsoulos), who are both grieving from the recent death of Jason’s father. To distract her from her grief, a local pastor, Greg (Matt Kehoe), has asked Margery to run the church’s puppet club. A reluctant Jason is dragged along, joined by the girl next door, Jessica (Em Thomas), and Timmy, a brutish hornball (Spencer Beyerlein). It quickly becomes evident that Jason has taken to his puppet, Tyrone, a bit too much, and is using him to as a way to voice his repressed anger. As Tyrone (or is it Jason?) begins to insult and humiliate everyone around him, Margery reacts poorly, resulting in a series of escalating events that are simultaneously painful and hilarious.
This dichotomy of light and dark, comedy and tragedy, is what makes this play such a delightful evening of theatre. And make no mistake, this production, directed by Todd Thomas, is a ton of fun for the audience. Thomas has brought the audience in close, directly onto the stage, and dropped them in an intimate ¾ thrust, just inches from the actors, trusting the characters to carry the night.
And boy, is his trust well-placed. Nathan Hanley is simply dynamite as both Jason and Tyrone, often playing a scene with no one but his left hand (including a good bit of “Who’s on First?”). His shy, vulnerable Jason shares the stage with the foul-mouthed Tyrone with such impressive puppeteering that one quickly forgets they are the same actor. Em Thomas, playing the object of Jason’s teenage crush, is grounded and real, with a dry humor that plays well against the loud and physical antics of the other characters. Danielle Katsoulos, as the grieving MILF, plays both mother and woman with, ahem, gusto. Spencer Beyerlein is a muscular, solid presence that is perfect foil to Matt Kehoe’s mild-mannered pastor, a Ned Flanders-esque sea of calm morality amid a shitstorm of poor choices. Todd Thomas has done an excellent job directing the energy of his actors into fast-paced, nuanced performances that showcase their many strength, keeping the audience intensely focused on the action.
On the technical side, things were also strong for the most part. Lighting design by Bailey Banks was simple and effective, moving the story forward without calling attention to itself. No costume designer was credited in the program, but the costume choices gave the audience important clues about each character’s personality. Sound design by L’Oreal Hartwell was a fun mix of bluegrass and sexually suggestive pop tunes. The puppet designs by Katie Cook were very effective. Anatomically correct puppets cannot be easy to fabricate. The single stumbling block of the night was the set, designed by Todd Thomas. When the traveler was closed, we were able to focus on the actors, but the rest of the show was dominated by large, boldly patterned set pieces that stood in contrast to the intimacy that the director had so carefully crafted. Scene changes were unnecessarily long and complicated. Additionally, the actors were frequently staged to kneel or sit, and the rake of the audience seating was too shallow; the actors were lost to everyone but the front row during those moments.
Setting that single miss aside, Hand to God is a tightly paced, darkly funny play that features some of the best young actors on this area’s stage. It’s sexually explicit, foul-mouthed, and emceed by a demon-puppet with a terrifically pessimistic view of humanity. It is also sweetly romantic, in its way, and honest about the things we think but never say. It’s about what happens when we choose the dark over the light. Which, when it’s still light out at 10:30pm on a Michigan summer night, seems almost optimistic.
Hand to God runs this Friday and Saturday, June 22 and 23 at 8:30pm. Tickets are available online or by calling the box office at 989-754-6587. For more information about this play or future events, please visit pitandbalconytheatre.com.