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Sometimes the way you do something is more important than what you do. Take Salt Lake Acting Company's regional premiere of Robert Askins' raucous, irreverent black comedy, "Hand to God," for example. You can approach the play from different angles.
You can turn it into a stage version of a horror film, sensationalizing the puppet Tyrone's diabolical and destructive behavior. Or you can emphasize the outrageous humor and religious satire, pushing the characters into one-dimensional caricatures. Or, like director Christopher DuVal and this perceptive, resilient and often terrifyingly funny cast, you can recognize and explore the deeper questions about grief and loss, loneliness and desire, balancing individual needs against a sense of responsibility, and walking the tricky line between right and wrong that lie beneath the play's surface.
The characters in "Hand to God" have one thing in common: They are desperate driven to escape frustrating situations and point their lives in a happier direction.
Margery (Alexandra Harbold) vacillates between grief and guilt over her husband's death; "I don't know who I am anymore," she confesses, but she's painfully aware she failed him. And she's completely cut off from her shy and insecure son, Jason (Riley O'Toole), whose struggles to reconcile his conflicting needs and desires are channeled through the vitriolic and violent Tyrone. At first Tyrone provides a way for Jason to express his feelings of rejection and antisocial impulses, but soon the puppet begins to take over and threatens to destroy him.
Timothy (Nathan Vaughn) is a bully with an overpowering obsession with Margery distractions to escape his miserable home life. And Pastor Greg (Daniel Beecher) uses religion to try to mask his feelings of emptiness and isolation.
Only the sensible and clever Jessica (Amy Ware) seems to have it together. She has her seductive puppet, Jolene, divert Tyrone in one of the most bizarre sex scenes ever staged so she can connect with Jason. "Do you want to be a shallow, foul-mouthed puppet for the rest of your life?" she asks him. "You can be your own person."
"Hand to God" sometimes seems like a bevy of ids gone berserk, thanks to DuVal's frantically paced direction, but even while we're alternately laughing and being shocked, the humanity of these characters is never obscured due to the cast's multilevel performances. We see and feel their pain.
The performances are all fine, but O'Toole's double-duty portrayal of Jason and Tyrone is amazing. His left arm assumes a life of its own, and we increasingly lose sight of the fact that one actor is playing both characters.
Gage Williams' brightly colored, Pop Art, church-activity-room set features a back wall that peels away to accommodate Tyrone's puppet stage. James Craig's brassy lighting flashes dramatically to red during Tyrone's devilish moments, and Philip Lowe's Texas-tacky costumes look like specials from the local Walmart. Due to Glenn and Linda Brown's puppetmaking prowess, Tyrone becomes more sinister and threatening as the action accelerates.
Tyrone frames the play with provocative remarks about good and evil, God and the devil, but ultimately whether humankind invented the devil to evade responsibility for their libidinous inclinations is less the question than how we cope with and recover from life's traumatic challenges. "Hand to God" is brash and bawdy, but, as a famous playwright once remarked, there is method in its madness.
'Hand to God'
Salt Lake Acting Company gives "Hand to God" a sacrilegiously funny but unfailingly human production.
When • Reviewed April 16; plays Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 1 and 6 p.m., through May 14. Additional performances on Tuesdays, May 2 and 9, at 7:30 p.m., and Saturdays, April 29, May 6 and 13, at 2 p.m.
Where • Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $15 to $42; discounts for students, seniors, groups and those under 30; 801-363-7522 or saltlakeactingcompany.org; contains adult language and material
Running time • One hour and 45 minutes (including an intermission)