The stage that scenic designer David P. Melton has set before us looks benign enough.
Here in a Texas church basement, Bible excerpts and hand-drawn pictures line the walls. Functional chairs and desks hint at a classroom. And rounding out the space is a booth constructed for the “Christcateers Puppet Theater,” centerpiece of a program where teens use puppets to key in on the finer points of Christian faith.
But 5th Wall Theatre and TheatreLAB’s co-production of Robert Askins’ “Hand to God” is no kids’ show or Sunday school diorama.
Both the characters and puppets driving the themes and attitudes on display in this spicy, energetic show traffic in the profane and explicit to make their points. And if “Hand to God” comes at us knowing that puppetry’s age-old sleight of hand never fails to enchant, it also never ceases to remind us that puppets can always be counted on to tell the truth.
“Hand to God” drops us unceremoniously into a jumble of chaos and stress as Margery (Kimberly Jones Clark), a widow recently tapped by Pastor Greg (Fred Iacovo) to lead the puppet program, rides herd on her three diffident charges.
Margery’s son Jason (Adam Turck), withdrawn, repressed and nursing resentment toward a father who left the family before dying of a heart attack, has an eye for Jessica (Anne Michelle Forbes), who in turn has a crush on Timmy (Adam Valentine), the reprobate child of an alcoholic mother.
The kids resist the notion of puppets as religious-awareness therapy, with Timmy soon pushing past the boundaries of teacher-student appropriateness by coming on to Margery.
But Jason’s puppet, Tyrone, begins to show signs of full-fledged personality, character and wit as he bounces off Jason in a quickie version of Abbott and Costello’s famous “Who’s On First?” comedy routine, which impresses Jessica.
That routine’s pace and manner set up the speed and structure to follow in “Hand to God, which director Gary C. Hopper, well-known as an actor’s director and eternally young at heart, pushes to hilarious effect as the amperage between Margery and Timmy increases and Tyrone, as a vehicle for displacing Jason’s troubled psyche, grows stronger, meaner and more outspoken.
Heidi Rugg’s puppet design, Liz Hopper’s costumes and Michael Jarett’s nimble, euphoric lighting all contribute to “Hand to God’s” efforts to look at how we balance the many tensions hidden in our deepest selves.
How do we walk the fine line between order or chaos, redemption or condemnation, high-minded spirituality or the basest elements of our own human nature?
By choosing to employ the magic of puppetry — an ever-reliable go-to vehicle for playing out notions of displaced identity — “Hand to God” does suffer from a split personality of its own.
The script’s high humor and antic energy, while vastly entertaining, cause the action and tone to swing wildly between serious and slapstick, and by inviting in so much raucous laughter and allowing its characters to fumble among the mysteries of human erotica once too often, the show misses its chance to offer a deeper understanding of emotional displacement and achieve a measure of serious, mesmerizing drama.
But every actor in the cast does magnificent work, with Turck especially watchable as he uncorks every ounce of energy and talent to toggle between Jason and Tyrone and paint a picture of teenage alienation at its most unhinged.
And even if “Hand to God” tends to lose its own head by putting performance and momentum ahead of insight and sympathy, it still asks us to consider the true natures of our complicated personalities and take responsibility for confronting the darkest and most broken parts of our souls.
We don’t have to be what we’ve always been, “Hand to God” wants to tell us, and Pastor Greg sums it up succinctly when he finally puts the universal human choice to Jason/Tyrone at the height of their ongoing, internal war:
“You will have to decide who comes out of this room.”