Fifteen years ago, Avenue Q showed audiences that puppets could be foul-mouthed beings with adult problems and even naughtier adult content. Seven years ago, native Texan and playwright Robert Askins said, "hold my Jesus juice."
He wrote Hand to God, which sticks a possessed sock puppet on a timid teen's arm and forces its audience to really think about religion, sex, morals, loneliness, and growing up. WaterTower Theatre artistic director Joanie Schultz first staged Askins' Tony-nominated play two years ago in Washington, D.C., and re-creates that production here, right down to some of the same creative team (lighting designer Keith Parham and costume/puppet designer Chelsea M. Warren).
It's staged the same way too, with an incredibly detailed immersive church basement set from Richard Ouellette that seats audience members at plastic gingham-covered tables in the middle of the action. Come early, and you can build your own sock puppet from the provided supplies — though after seeing what hell this demonic plaything hath wrought, you might be wary about picking up the pipe cleaners.
Askins and Schultz let their audience decide if Tyrone, the tangerine-hued puppet, truly is the devil or if he's just a projection of the roiling emotions his host, Jason, is trying to process following the death of his father. All those teenage hormones don't help, either.
Parker Gray gives a marvelous performance, seamlessly ping-ponging between Jason and Tyrone with astonishing physicality and vocal distinction. He has the puppet in the first place because his mother, Margery (a hilariously prissy Shannon McGrann), is leading a Christian puppet ministry — and yes, that's a real thing. Askins' mother was the leader of one while he was growing up.
None of Margery's teenage charges get into the puppets except for Jason, who is at first terrified and eventually emboldened by Tyrone's profanity-laced speech and hair trigger of a temper. Rounding out the misfit group is the emo bully Timothy (Garret Storms, going delightfully dark and twisted) and manic pixie dream girl Jessica (Debbie Ruegsegger, who's even outfitted in pink hair and adorkable glasses).
Schultz keeps the characters from becoming too cartoonish by emphasizing what's under the surface. Even the jolly Pastor Greg (Thomas Ward) shows flashes of oppressive sexism when trying to woo the newly widowed Margery, making his affable demeanor more creepy than caring.
But let's be clear: There's not a lot of subtlety in this 100-minute play. Be prepared for rough language, blasphemous imagery, blatant sexual acts (both human and puppet), and a bit of violence. If it all gets to be too much, remember that they sell Jesus juice at the concession stand.
WaterTower Theatre's production of Hand To God runs through August 26.