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Sean Fannin & Clare Hagan. Photo: courtesy Wayward Actors Company
Hand To God
By Robert Askins
Directed by Jeff Mangum
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright, © 2018 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
Possessed dolls or puppets have been around for many years; as far back as the 1945 British horror film Dead of Night, and more recently, Magic (1978) and Child’s Play (1988) which launched the seemingly inexhaustible “Chucky” franchise. And while I would be willing to bet that Hand to God is not the first instance of a demonic hand puppet, it still offers a fresh take on the well-worked trope of a devil doll.
Recently widowed Margery (Jennifer Starr) is attempting to fashion a puppet theatre in the Lutheran church of Pastor Greg (Greg Collier). Her company is comprised of her teenage son Jason (Sean Fannin), with his puppet Tyrone, his congenial friend Jessica (Clare Hagan), and her puppet Jolene, and the uncooperative Timothy (John C. Collins) who never dons a puppet
It is clearly a struggle, and when Pastor Greg imposes a deadline on Margery by insisting the group performs the following Sunday, the pressure triggers her to be open to John’s infatuation with her while also pushing Jason, whose proficiency as a puppeteer is dramatically more developed than the others.
The reason, of course, is that Tyrone has begun to take over. Jason only removes Tyrone when he bathes, and his own fears about what is happening prompt him to tear the puppet in two and discard him on the side of the road. Mysteriously, Tyrone is repaired and on Jason’s hand when he awakes the next morning, a Frankenstein’s monster of a sock puppet who has grown sharp teeth and now seems firmly in control.
Playwright Robert Askins uses his church setting to highlight the conflict between good and evil in ecclesiastical terms, but he allows all of the characters to be extremely raw and profane with their actions inside the church, suggesting a certain impotence in religion in dealing with modern psychosis. On a fundamental level, Askins’ comic tale of horror is a twisted debate on science vs religion.
But Tyrone’s possession of Jason is an expression of real human pain and suffering, and ultimately it is the tenderness of the human heart in which the playwright finds the most powerful resolution.
There is a lot of nice detail in Jeff Mangum’s production, from the White Jesus with a Mullet projection to the impressively unctuous soundtrack of saccharine Protestant children’s songs: “Jesus Love The Little Children”, “This Little Light of Mine”, that tidily establish the context of southern middle class white Protestantism. The play makes allusions to the source of Margery and Jason’s deep-seated discontent, but never quite pins it down, which invites a connection to religion. Yet Askins also gives Pastor Greg the opportunity to rise enough to the occasion and show that he has some courage at his core.
Or it might be more about the performances. Greg Collier makes the Pastor’s transition from wimpy to a man of integrity a credible thing, while Louisville theatre veteran Jennifer Starr delivers her most emotionally risky performance as Margery. John C. Collins’ mix of swagger and naiveté gives their scenes together an important edge while Clare Hagan brings the gentle heart of compassion just when it is needed.
But none of it works unless Jason and Tyrone both are brought fully to life. Sean Fannin, a new face on Louisville stages, works the Jekyll and Hyde dynamic with great energy and conviction. His long, shaggy hair and sheepish countenance make him a perfect cast for this play, but he has the skill and judgment as an actor to push Tyrone to his vicious extreme without compromising Jason so much that he is alienated from the audience. He manages the sharp transitions well enough to maintains clarity between the two characters with impressive ease.
Technical snafus and an overall lack of cohesive tension dogged the opening night performance, but I’m betting that not-ready-for-primetime aspect will fall away soon enough. Wayward Theatre Company’s Hand to God, a Louisville premiere, has all the right pieces headed in the right direction and does good service to a challenging and off-beat script.
Hand to God
August 10, 11, 16, 17 & 18 @ 7:30pm
August 12 & 19 @ 5:30
ALL TICKETS are $18
Wayward Actors Company
At The Bard’s Town
1801 Bardstown Road
Louisville, KY 40205
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.