Marianna Bassham, Eliott Purcell, and Josephine Elwood in Hand to God, directed by David R. Gammons, at SpeakEasy Stage Company.
Marianna Bassham, Eliott Purcell, and Josephine Elwood in Hand to God, directed by David R. Gammons, at SpeakEasy Stage Company.
(© Glenn Perry)

"In the beginning there was no divide," says Tyrone in the prologue that opens Hand to God. "We were too stupid to be anything but what we were." The notion of the devil, he tells us, was born out of man's invention of right and wrong. "When I have acted badly," he continues, "all I have to do is say…the devil made me do it." Tyrone, by the way, is a sock puppet.

Robert Askins' Hand to God, currently enjoying its New England premiere at SpeakEasy Stage Company, is about such tensions — between good and evil, right and wrong — and the corrosiveness of allowing ourselves to become too preoccupied with either. But for all of the rich, dramatic electricity that courses through Hand to God, it is — above all else — a riotously funny comedy that is every bit as remarkable as you've heard. (Hand to God climbed the ranks of the New York theater scene over the last several years, culminating in a hit Broadway production that was nominated for five Tony Awards.)

Set in the basement of a church in Texas, Margery (Marianna Bassham) is in charge of a Christian puppet ministry at the urging of Pastor Greg (Lewis D. Wheeler). Still reeling from the death of her husband six months earlier, she views the puppet show as important to her healing process. Her son, the quiet and sensitive Jason (Eliott Purcell), is one of three members of this small group of teens who gather a few times a week to prepare for their upcoming show. He is joined by his crush, the kind, sarcastic Jessica (Josephine Elwood), and Timothy (Dario Ladani Sanchez), a handsome rebel with an absent, alcoholic mother. Timothy has the hots for Jason's mom.

Jason, who doesn't get the time he needs to grieve for his father, is expected to be his mother's knight in shining armor. He blames his mother for allowing his father to eat himself to death and finds an outlet for this anger in his puppet, Tyrone. But Tyrone has other plans, and he begins to take on a life of his own.

Things fall apart quickly. Vulgar, ruthless, and out-of-control hilarious, Tyrone wreaks havoc on their little puppet ministry and completely takes over Jason's arm. It seems that Tyrone might be possessed by a demon, and Pastor Greg determines that an exorcism is in order. By the end of the play, the small church is a sort of ground zero for all of the characters' torments. Simply put, this production of Hand to God, vibrantly and faultlessly directed by David R. Gammons, could not possibly be better.

Hand to God is filled with the kind of humor that elicits laughter so unbridled and blaring that I feared the mezzanine would come crashing down on top of the orchestra. Askins writes with confident aggression, pushing all of the characters — and the audience — to their glorious limits. There isn't a moment that feels overdone, either — a rarity for a comedy, especially one as black as this; each scene simmers along like a pot of almost boiling water, vigorously bubbling along, but never overflowing. For as over-the-top as Hand to God can be, it is also exceptional in its restraint, particularly in its dealing of the characters' pathos and sensibility.

It would be easy for any of these characters to fall into caricature, but they never do. That is a testament to Gammons direction as much as it is to Askins' writing. Wheeler brings a bumbling softness to Pastor Greg, and Elwood is charming as Jessica (particularly during her heart-to-heart with Jason while her puppet, Jolene, is busy putting the moves on Tyrone.) Sanchez is hammily funny and totally steamy as Timothy; his "scenes" (we'll leave it at that) with Margery are uproarious.

Bassham, an actress of miraculous breadth, encapsulates Margery with suffering, tumult, and good old-fashioned zaniness. At times, she is reminiscent of an in-her-prime Shelley Duvall: alluring and lovable, yet undeniably breakable.

But the tour de force here comes from the magnificent Purcell, who must Jekyll-and-Hyde his way through the play, both as Jason and as Tyrone, while never making it seem like he's working at all. Hand to God rises and falls on the sadness and anger that propels Jason through the play, and Purcell is utterly transfixing throughout.

The set by the ever-reliable Cristina Todesco is equal parts innovation and humor (the second act unveiling of the church basement after Tyrone has done some demonic remodeling nearly stops the show), and Jeff Adelberg's lighting is just right. Congratulations are also in order for Andrew Duncan Will's pristine sound design. Roxanna Myhrum has provided the extraordinary puppet direction.

As tense and aggressive as Hand to God is, it is an altogether cathartic experience. At its best, it serves as a mirror as we attempt to navigate our own paths and pitfalls, reconcile the space between our thoughts and actions, and — just maybe — come to terms with some of our own demons.