Review of Hand to God at St. Louis Actors’ Studio

    The St. Louis Actors’ Studio currently stages an intensely foul-mouthed, raunchy, and very funny play called Hand to God. And, true to the company’s name, the play is brilliantly acted. 

    But I was a little disappointed in it. Given its Tony nomination and rave reviews both on and off-Broadway, I hoped for more. Not in Actors’ Studio’s production, but in the play itself. 

    The playwright, Robert Askins, grew up in a small town in Texas. The  play is set in a small town in Texas, in the local church, probably much like the church where Askins grew up. He is not happy about it.

    His play reminded me of Christopher Durang’s play Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You. Sister Mary Ignatius was Durang’s teacher in his Catholic grade school. He’d been brooding about her and the Church and their wrongs in educating him for some years. Now he let it all out. So strong was it that, when the play was done here some years ago, the company got death threats and the actor playing Sister Mary had a police escort to the theatre and home again.

    Askins is doing much the same thing to his religion. He does it with that hand in the title. The hand has a puppet on it. Young Jason has a puppet on his hand because his mother Margery is in charge of the church’s puppet ministry. When Margery was suddenly widowed, Pastor Greg wanted to give her something to do to distract her and to occupy her time. And to keep her close to the church. And close to him. Who better than Eric Dean White to play this man so devout and well-meaning who can’t keep his real intentions from leaking out around the pious facade. 

    Jason’s cute puppet Tyrone sings “Jesus Love Me,” and together they perform Abbott and Costello’s Who”s on First routine. Jason wants to impress his fellow teen puppeteer Jessica, and Tyrone can let shy Jason hint at what’s on his mind.

    But that’s not all that Tyrone can let Jason do. Tyrone can use the words that Jason can’t use, say all the things about the people around him and their repressive ways that Jason can’t say. 

    His mother, too, sad, frustrated, bitter, finds her own outlet in the third teen in the puppet ministry. Timmy, dropped off in the workshop while his mother goes to AA upstairs in the church, lusts after Margery. She has needs too. 

    Before long, you have a stage full of desperate, confused, unhappy people. All because the Devil is in Jason’s puppet.  Or is he? Does Jason need the Devil’s help?

    Margery gives Colleen Backer splendid opportunities to exercise all her histrionic muscles, which she does splendidly, as she transitions from a line of ingenues to playing a mother. Phoebe Richards’ Jessica is sweet and naïve, and Josh Rotkers bad-boy Timmy can be a real threat. Mitchell Henry-Eagles’ twin performances as Josh and Tyrone are a treat. He’s totally convincing as these two opposite characters, and though his lips are clearly moving when he speaks as Tyrone, he convinces me that the puppet was the one doing the talking. 

    Credit director Andrea Urice for keeping all this clear and balanced.

    With his set and lights, Patrick Huber works another miracle within the restrictive limits of the Gaslight stage, using a swinging wall to create two separate rooms, scene changes done with swift precision by stage manager Amy Paige and her crew. Teresa Doggett’s costumes fit the characters in all ways, and Jenny Smith created the amazingly flexible puppets.

    With Hand to God, Robert Askins gives his own inventive twists to the play of adolescent resentment and rebellion.   

    —Bob Wilcox

    Photo by St. Louis Actors’ Studio