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Hand to God
by Robert Askins
Directed by Andrea Urice
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
April 8, 2022

Phoebe Richards, Mitchell Henry-Eagles
Photo: St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Hand to God is one of those sharp, crass, biting comedies that’s not for all audiences, with crude humor, strong language, and uncomfortable subject matter. Still, it has a lot to say, in the words of its human and puppet characters. Onstage at St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s Gaslight Theater, STLAS’s latest production brings a lot of laughs from the audience, but for me, what shows through the most is an underlying sadness, considering the situation of the characters involved, and the culture in which they live.  

The play takes place mostly in the basement of a church, where the recently widowed Margery (Colleen Backer) is trying to channel her grief into leading a youth puppet ministry. It’s not a very big or enthusiastic effort, with only three teens involved, whose attitudes range from apathy to outright hostility, but there’s a sense of urgency because the pastor keeps asking Margery about their progress, and wants them to perform in front of the church at an upcoming service. The group includes the abrasive, foul-mouthed Timmy (Josh Rotker), the generally amiable but slightly snarky Jessica (Phoebe Richards), and Margery’s insecure son Jason (Mitchell Henry-Eagles), who seems to channel his own conflicted feelings through his puppet Tyrone. The problem is that Tyrone increasingly appears to have a mind of his own, and often appears to be telling Jason what to do rather than the other way around. The main focus here is on Jason and the increasingly difficult and ultimately menacing Tyrone, who also opens and closes the show with a pair of especially caustic, cynical monologues that only serve to emphasize the overall chaos of the world in which these characters live. In the story itself, Tyrone appears relatively passive at first, then starts injecting a few inappropriate comments into Jason’s conversations, and things get more extreme when Jason has an opportunity to take out his anger on the puppet, and Tyrone strikes back with a vengeance, affecting everyone in the play in various ways. We also get to see the strained relationship between Margery and Jason, as well as  Margery’s efforts to handle her own grief, which begin to spiral in a dangerous direction, as Timmy continues to antagonize her. There are also the awkward efforts of Pastor Greg (Eric Dean White)–who makes his attraction to Margery painfully obvious–to intervene in various ways. A variety of over-the-top, uncomfortable, and sometimes downright cringeworthy situations ensue, along with desperate and hilarious efforts to “fix” the situation caused by the out-of-control puppet Tyrone. There are also the questions of Jason’s involvement–is he consciously or unconsciously acting out his frustrations through Tyrone, or does the puppet really have a mind of his own? 

This is a show that depends a lot on timing and casting, and it impresses in those areas especially. The quick pacing adds to the overall darkly comic tone, and the cast is first-rate, led by a truly remarkable performance from Henry-Eagles as the conflicted Jason and his crass and increasingly domineering puppet, Tyrone. Henry-Eagles doesn’t miss a beat in the interplay between these two characters, also doing well with a snippet of a classic comedy routine early in the play, and credibly ramping up the intensity as events start to spiral out of control as the play goes on. Backer is also excellent as Margery, who seems meek at first, but shows more emotion and conflicting reactions as her own situation heads in a disturbing direction. White is effective as the sometimes painfully awkward Pastor Greg, and there are also strong performances from Rotker as the confrontational Timmy, and Richards as Jessica, who comes across as perhaps the most level-headed of the characters.  

Technically, the play is impressive, making the most of STLAS’s small stage with an excellent detailed set by Patrick Huber that effectively transforms from basement/classroom to Pastor Greg’s Office as needed. The truly remarkable puppet and prop design by Jenny Smith and STLAS is also memorable, as are the well-suited costumes by Teresa Doggett. There’s also strong work from lighting designer Steve Miller, sound designer Robin Weatherall, fight choreographer Cameron Ulrich, and intimacy choreographer Dominique (Nikki) Green. 

This show is definitely a comedy, but I found myself thinking a lot more about the pain behind the comic situations much of the time while the audience laughed around me. Much has been written over the years about the relationship between comedy and pain/sadness/tragedy, and that relationship is on clear display here. It’s a show that will make audiences laugh, but also can make them think, and notice just how messed up most of the characters’ lives are, as are the circumstances that got them to where they are, as well as a culture that seems to emphasize “putting on a good face” over honesty. At STLAS, what Hand to God has going for it most notably is a strong cast of impressive local performers. 

Eric Dean White, Colleen Backer
Photo: St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting Hand to God at the Glaslight Theater until April 24, 2022

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