Situations escalate quickly in Berkeley Rep’s West Coast premiere of Robert Askins’ “Hand to God.” By the end of the 80-minute play, the cheery church basement where awkward, innocent Texan teenager Jason (Michael Doherty) has been guilt tripped into puppet ministry by his mother Margery (a manic Laura Odeh) gets destroyed — trashed, vandalized and drenched in human blood.
The puppet Jason decides to perform with is Tyrone: a fuzzy gray personified hand puppet with deceptively sweet googly eyes. Tyrone can sing “Jesus Loves Me,” perform a bit from “Who’s On First,” defile churches with the filthiest acts of puppet sex and rip human ears off with his teeth. The first two are Jason’s doing. The latter two are a little more complicated. Is Jason’s repressed grief and teenage lust manifesting itself through a puppet? Or could this be the work of Satan himself?
Jason is coping with his father’s death and his mother’s silence by turning to Tyrone for company and conversation. Doherty’s blinking, gawky Jason is absolutely heartbreaking and stunningly different from his simultaneously puppeteered Tyrone.
The way Doherty can keep Jason’s horror on his own face while Tyrone’s infernal stream of expletives comes out of the puppet’s mouth is this play’s truest miracle. It is almost a shame we get so little time with Jason, as Tyrone increasingly dominates his meek host and wreaks havoc on this little Texan church.
Margery is dealing with the loss of her husband by throwing herself into a church puppet ministry with wild-eyed zeal It’s like tossing a Mento into a Pepsi can and trying to screw the cap back on — it’s just a matter of time until it all blows up.
Everybody at the Lutheran church is a soda can waiting to explode too, and much of it has to do with Margery. Bad boy Timothy (Michael McIntire) is a horny, hormonal menace, showing up puppetless to puppet class, slouching angrily in the too-small plastic chairs and bullying everybody around him. When Margery asks him why he hates her so much, he declares that he’s in love with her. Timothy’s not the only one — Pastor Greg (a perfectly slimy David Kelly) has an ulterior motive when he lets Margery use the basement for her puppet show. He is also hoping Margery might fall into his open, empty arms. Jessica (Carolina Sanchez), the object of Jason’s affection and Tyrone’s lewd harassment, is the only well-adjusted person around.
While it is Doherty’s Jason who evokes the most intense response — a painful desire to hide under one’s seat until this sweet boy has stopped embarrassing himself — “Hand to God” is Margery’s story in equal measure. Odeh’s performance is louder than Doherty’s, more frenzied and theatrical, but it is still a moving depiction of a woman driven to wit’s end by grief and loneliness.
That gulf between righteous exteriors and interior messes is captured effectively, if straightforwardly, by Jo Winiarski’s bright elementary school classroom decor. Of course it’s an act of sex that finally shatters everyone’s last bits of reserve. When Margery gives into animal instinct with Timothy, all hell breaks loose. What ensues is enormously funny but perhaps not as subversive as Askins meant it to be. On a Berkeley stage, blasphemy, obscene language and the exposure of Christian hypocrisy doesn’t pack quite the same punch it would in a town more rooted to propriety and the Church.
Askins’ other overarching theme — the terrible, violent, gross things humans are capable of doing when freed from the constraints of society — is a little trite. “Hand to God” is saved from hints of college-sophomore-philosophy-major obviousness by its rip-roaring humor and the strength of its human portraits. David Ivers’ snappy direction also helps.
The play’s deep compassion is what raises it from “Lord of the Flies”-lite to something much higher. For “Hand to God,” its humanity is its salvation.
“Hand to God” opened at Berkeley Repertory Theatre on Feb. 10 and runs until March 19. Tickets are $20 exclusively with purchase on the Cal Smart Wallet.