Addison — Puppetry is one of those millennia-old theatrical forms that mostly escaped ruination because some creative and/or psychopath turned it into a thing of horror, á la the art of clown or mask. (Thanks Pennywise, John Wayne Gacy, Halloween and Scream). Puppets, in their myriad styles, are hard to make truly scary, probably because they’re generally smaller than humans. Even the Muppets made monsters and a vampire cute and fuzzy; and Punch and Judy had humor in their violence.
That said, Tyrone, a central character in Texas native Robert Askins’ Tony-nominated play Hand to God, might be the puppet that surpasses a ventriloquist's dummy as the biggest fear for people with pupaphobia. Except that Tyrone, even in his evilness, is still kind of adorbs. Plus, he’s painfully, refreshingly honest—with a mouth so obscene he makes the Avenue Q puppets look like Lambchop.
In the play’s regional premiere at WaterTower Theatre, marking the close of its 2017-18 season, the first selected by artistic director Joanie Schultz, Tyrone is the catalyst for much laughter and, in the second act, terror.
It’s the third show directed here by Schultz. If her first, last season’s Hit the Wall, signaled a new era for WaterTower, Hand to God solidifies it. The former play looked at how grief compounded by anger over marginalization and mistreatment among LGBTQ+ people in 1960s New York led to a riot and watershed moment in gay rights. The latter examines grief in ways more profound than it might seem on the surface; the kind of grief that leads to destructive behavior.
The characters not handling their grief well are teenager Jason (Parker Gray), who lost his father; and Jason’s mom Margery (Shannon McGrann), who lost her husband. Margery leads a puppet ministry at the conservative Lutheran church in a suburban Texan town, where the other teens include Jessica (a pink-haired Debbie Ruegsegger) and Timothy (a 1970s-metal-god-haired Garret Storms). They’re each making a puppet for the ministry; Jason’s just happens to be bad. Make that evil. Trying to make sense of it all—not to mention make moves on Margery—is unlucky-in-love Pastor Greg (Thomas Ward, playing him as a loveable loser).
No need to spoil the plot; let’s just say that it’s more twisted than a helix wrapped around a pentagram.
After the show’s 2015 Broadway run, Schultz directed one of the first regional productions of Hand to God at the Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C. That production earned raves for its immersive experience, putting the audience in the church basement. She repeats that theme in WaterTower’s flexible space, down to church banners, inspirational posters, and the audience seated at tables with checkered plastic table cloths and sock puppet-making kits (socks, pipe cleaners, googly eyes, etc.). The only thing missing is a potluck dinner. On the side is a small stage where you could imagine a church talent show; that area also doubles as Pastor Greg’s office and Parker’s bedroom (scenic design is by regional designer Richard Ouellette). In WaterTower’s high-ceilinged, flexible space, it feels more like the gym/rec center that many rural, evangelical churches build to accompany the church building—or sometimes are built before the church and then double as the sanctuary until the church is constructed.
Tyrone—named for the family in O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night—is the same puppet used in the Studio Theatre’s production, designed by Chelsea M. Warren (who also designed puppets and costumes for the WaterTower production).
Each member of Schultz’s ensemble gets to the meat of these characters. Gray has the difficult task of quickly shifting back and forth from Jason’s whiny voice to Tyrone’s manipulative, crazed tone. He’s brilliant at it. Even though Jason is taken over by the force that is Tyrone, Parker’s Jason gets to the heart of profound grief experienced after losing a parent. You keep telling yourself things will get better, but sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they spiral out of control.
Ruegsegger plays Debbie as the teen you usually only see on TV, the ones wiser than you ever were at that age. Her scene with Gray in which their characters have a conversation while their respective puppets have something else going on is expertly and hilariously choreographed. Storms’ Timothy is appropriately a jumble of teenage-boy hormones and rebellious attitude.
McGrann’s performance is the emotional equivalent of a spear shot straight through the torso. Tyrone is one extreme example of destructive behavior, and Margery is another. Hers will have more lasting impact on those around her, and McGrann bears this out with brutal honesty. This is as much her story as it is Jason’s.
Directors don’t always love every play they direct; sometimes the job is to make it appear as if they love the work. Schultz, whose vision is reshaping one of DFW’s best-known professional theaters, clearly loves this play. Her Hand to God is riotous and grab-the-person-next-to-you scary, sometimes at once. The testament to Askins’ writing is that it’s also challenging and unexpectedly moving.