Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Hand to God
Victory Gardens Theatre
Review by John Olson | Season Schedule

Nina Ganet, Alex Weisman, Janelle Snow,
and Curtis Edward Jackson

Photo by Liz Lauren
It's getting harder to shock us. Language that a decade ago would only have been heard on "shock jock" radio is now the stuff of newscasts and presidential debates. Even so, the things said and the actions taken inside the church setting of Hand to God are if not shocking, at least extremely unexpected. Robert Askins' 2015 Tony Award nominee for Best Play, set in a Lutheran church in Cypress, Texas, just outside of Houston (not even a town, Cypress is technically an "unincorporated community"), concerns the puppet youth ministry led by recently widowed Margery (Janelle Snow). Margery has asked her son Jason (Alex Weisman) and two other teens to create puppets as a means of learning about the bible and the devil. Only Jason has completed his puppet, a green Kermit-the-frog looking creature he's named Tyrone. When Jason is alone with Jessica (Nina Ganet), the girl he has a crush on, Tyrone takes over for Jason as might Cyrano for Christian in wooing Roxane, but in a manner more akin to a possessing demon than a gallant French soldier. Crude remarks and expletives abound. In another room, as Margery tries to reason with the disruptive teen Timothy (Curtis Edward Jackson), Timothy reveals the real reason for his behavior. He has the hots for Margery, in a very big way.

As the action progresses, it soon becomes evident Tyrone is charge of Jason, who tries to silence this demon by ripping him up. Somehow, Tyrone gets sewn back together—this time with teeth. Sharp ones, not fake teeth made of felt. Inside the quite authentic-looking Sunday school room designed by Joe Schermoly, all sorts of foul language, sex and violence (quite convincingly choreographed by David Woolley) take place—shocking not only for their content and the church setting, but also for the fact that so much of it comes from the mouths (and arms and hands) of teens.

The piece works on shock value, though wittingly written and exceedingly well acted and paced by the cast under Gary Griffin's direction. As we get into the second act, though, we learn there's a lot more going on and that, rather than a profane piece, it's actually a highly thoughtful, if outrageous, meditation on morality, religion and humanism. We see how Margery and Jason are truly hurting from the loss of their husband/father and how, as religious people, their faith is not able to entirely take away the pain. The well-meaning Pastor Greg (Eric Slater) earns our empathy in seeing how he is frustrated at not being able to be of more comfort, along with his own conflicting emotions over his romantic interest in Margery.

Hand to God is also a consideration of the nature of sin and its role in human behavior. In a prologue, the puppet Tyrone delivers a monologue that suggests morality was a relatively recent creation in human development anyway, created to codify behaviors to promote survival of the species. He mocks the idea of blaming immoral acts on the devil, and in an epilogue, wraps it all up to conclude that all our behaviors, good and evil, are simply a part of being human.

The production is executed flawlessly, with the characters' swings from sweetness to venality appearing as logical as they are sudden. Alex Weisman gives a virtuoso performance as the naïve but troubled Jason as well as voicing and manipulating the demonic Tyrone. Janelle Show, who has been working in Chicago theatre for years, has a breakout performance as Margery, who goes from tightly wound desperation to entirely out-of-control behavior. Hers is the longest journey any of the characters travel, and Snow gives an amazing performance of it. Curtis Edward Jackson is perfect as the angry teen Timothy, filled with resentment and sexual aggression, while Nina Ganet's Jessica suggests a pretty normal teen girl who is trying to be good, but is not getting much help in understanding the sexuality blossoming within her. Eric Slater's Pastor Greg initially appears to be a fairly typical satirical target of the clueless minister, but Slater shows us layers that make him a sympathetic figure.

Hand to God is great, outrageous fun in the moment, but it leaves one with much to ponder. It's rightly become one of the big hits of the new Chicago season.

Hand to God will play the Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago, through October 30, 2016. Ticket information is available at or by phone at 773-871-3000.

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