Highly Recommended ***** It is not often that I will say a show is a MUST SEE, but, unless you have a problem with coming of age and plays that deal with interpretations of the bible that are not consistent with your own beliefs, I suggest you see “Hand To God” now on the main stage at The Victory Gardens Theater. Written by Robert Askins, and directed to sheer perfection by Gary Griffin, this two- hour story (two acts with an intermission), takes us to Cypress Texas, in the basement of a local church. The play opens with a puppet show in which we meet Tyrone, who as it turns out is an important part of the story we are about to witness. After he opens our eyes to the world of puppetry, we go to the second scene, in a classroom in the basement of the church, where we meet three teens who are being tutored by Margery (a superb performance by Janelle Snow) a recent widow, with a son, who has come to the church to seek renewal after the death of her husband.
The three teens in the class are Jessica (amazingly played by Nina Ganet) a nerdy, plain girl, Timothy ( deftly handled by Curtis Edward Jackson) a bully and Jason ( Alex Weisman in a role that should easily earn him another Jeff Award), Margery’s son and Tyrone’s puppeteer. The puppet class is designed to be therapy for these three teens as well as for Margery. As it turns out, Tyrone takes over Jason’s life and his will, as he becomes more than a hand puppet with a mind of his own and decides to show them all that he is in fact in charge. The Minister, Pastor Greg (a solid performance by Eric Slater), who has designs of Margery, finds himself becoming involved with her and wanting more. What takes place in this amazingly fast paced story that has lots of x-rated material is a sort of “coming of age” story, in particular for Jason and Jessica as they have a puppet scene that may cause you to feel the heat and even blush a bit. If you liked “Avenue Q” and it’s coming of age scene, this one will be a delight for you! Griffin is able to pull the best out of his actors in every scene, in every way. As I said, if you can find the time to see this one, you owe it to yourself to do so.
While it is filled with comic scenes, including a new way of presenting the famous “Who’s on First?” routine from radio yester-year, there is a great deal of seriousness. Dealing with the death of a loved one is not easy! Dealing with loneliness is not easy! Overcoming fear of a bully is certainly not an easy task! Learning more about one’s inner-self is probably one of the hardest things one deals with in growing up. and Askins gets it all on the table. This is a show that can be called “Hysterical” or “Hilarious”, but should also be called “Heartwarming” and by all means “Educational”.
While we witness some very troubled people, each with their own particular problems, we are caught in the characters through the comic touches, allowing us to pay attention and get the depth of what Askins wants us to learn about fears, being lonely, wanting to find love, and to be in control of one’s own destiny. There are many people who believe that this play represents anti-Christianity, but many others feel that this play allows us to take a deeper look into our souls and needs. I for one, found this to a very entertaining experience and I am of a different faith.
The technical aspects of this show are also things that bear mentioning. Joe Shermoly’s set is one that rotates allowing us to be in the classroom, the pastor’s office, Jason’s bedroom ,and in a car, as well as the side of the church building. The props (Michael Dold must have had an army to assist in finding all the items), the original music and sound by Chris Kriz is very fitting and we hear every valuable word that Askins brought to the page. Janice Pytel’s costumes and Christine Binder’s lighting along with the puppet design by Daniel Dempsey ,complete the picture that might be thought of as “Sesame Street meets The Exorcist” ( someone else’s quote, not mine, but it very aptly describes “Hand To God”.
“Hand To God” will continue at The Biograph Theater/Victory Gardens through October 23rd (although I expect at least one more extension) located at 2433 N. Lincoln Avenue with performances as follows:
Wednesdays 7:30 p.m. except 10/5 where they will have a 2 p.m. performance
Thursdays 7:30 p.m.
Fridays 7:30 p.m.
Saturdays 3 and 7:30 p.m.
Sundays 3 p.m.
There are special caption performances, audio description and ASL performances along with some discussion- visit www.victorygardens.org
To see what others are saying, visit www.theatreinchicago.com, go to Review Round-Up and click at “Hand To God”