By Joanna Brady
Is it possible for a mere gray sock to inspire terror in our souls? The answer is yes, if it’s a naughty, talking sock puppet named Tyrone, with an evil streak, who refers to himself as the devil.
But Hand to God is far from metaphysical. It’s a very funny black comedy with saucy, spicy dialogue, written by Texas playwright, Robert Askins. It was produced Off-Broadway in 2011 and 2014 and on Broadway in 2015. The Broadway production received five Tony Award nominations, including for Best New Play. It was the most produced play in regional theaters during the 2016/17 season.
Hand to God is a play about relationships, mercilessly exploring the fragility of faith and family values. As it moves forward it evolves into an Armageddon, an allegory for the battle of good and evil.
Appropriately, it takes place in a church basement in suburban Texas, where posters on the walls chirp cheery thoughts about Jesus, who is represented by a bobble-head on the table. Margery is a recent widow, brilliantly played with humor and dramatic élan by Nicole Nurenberg. To take her mind off her grief, her pastor, Pastor Greg, (played convincingly by Michael Castellano), has asked her to run the puppet club at their fundamentalist congregation. He sees the puppets as a way to teach children how to follow the Bible and avoid Satan.
The teenage members of the club are her son Jason, played by Jeremy Zoma who has the challenging role of playing two parts, that of himself—a disturbed, introverted teenager and his puppet, Tyrone, who soon becomes a dominant force, imposing his evil will on Jason.
When he joins his mother Margery’s Christian Puppet Ministry at the local church, Jason discovers a burgeoning talent for puppetry, and it seems like things after his father’s sudden death might just turn out okay. Tyrone the puppet, though, has other plans. As the foul-mouthed, independent, and devilishly funny alter ego grows in strength, Jason’s complex relationships with the school bully, the girl-next-door, and most importantly, his mother, are thrown into upheaval.
With deadpan wit, Jessica Miano Kruel plays Jessica, the object of Jason’s affection, and is part of a hilarious scene in which her voluptuous puppet is seduced by Tyrone and the two socks go at it for several minutes while the puppeteers carry on a normal conversation.
Cody Borah is excellent as the school bully and God’s gift to women. A Fonz-like character, he’s handsome and flirtatious, and with hormones raging, manages to seduce not only Margery, but by implication, Jessica.
Director Murphy Davis does not disappoint, and the set design is perfectly in tune with the play.
Tyrone, the puppet, introduces the story to tell his version of the beginning of mankind and how the devil came to be. He also wraps it up in an Epilogue. He makes no bones about being the devil and revels in his own naughtiness. To quote Tyrone’s most pithy lines would not make it into a family newspaper. But cuss words aside, he’s a very funny character, leading them into temptation and disruption. After a while, you forget he’s a puppet and ask yourself, did I really just get taken in, listening to this acid commentary by a sock?
With the exception of Jessica, all the characters are struggling against unhealthy urges: Margery and Jason’s grief at the loss of husband and father; Timothy’s abandonment by his alcoholic mother; Pastor Greg’s loneliness and wounded pride.
Tyrone is a puppet with power, foul and evil—the snake in the garden. He can represent anyone you want him to. But at the end of the day, Tyrone is just a sock. A gray sock. But after seeing Hand to God, I’ll never look at hand puppets the same way again! See it. Audiences are laughing out loud at this very funny play.
A Hand to God opens at the Waterfront Playhouse Feb. 22 and runs till March 10. Tickets are $50 and available online or (305) 294-5015. Performances are at 8:00 p.m.
(Joanna Brady is a Key West writer, author of The Woman at the Light, a historical novel of early Key West, published by St. Martin’s Press)