Stage Door Review

Hand to God

Saturday, April 27, 2019

✭✭✭

by Robert Askins, directed by Mitchell Cushman

Coal Mine Theatre, 1454 Danforth Avenue, Toronto

April 24-May 12, 2019

“Dr. Jekyll and Miss Piggy”

The adventurous Coal Mine Theatre closes its fifth season with Hand to God by American Robert Askins. After runs Off-Broadway in 2011, 2012 and 2014, the play moved to Broadway for ten months. The play was nominated for Best Play at the 2015 Tony Awards, but when it was staged in London’s West End it flopped. There are reasons for this strangely divided reception. New Yorkers tend to view Christian Fundamentalist Southerners as inherently funny and the play does require a tour de force performance from the actor who plays Jason. 

On the other hand, Christian Fundamentalist Southerners are too easy a target for humour especially in a play that takes the use of puppet plays in church services, a regional anomaly, as its subject. Askins does not provide us with enough motivation for the characters’ bizarre actions and the play is not well structured. It reaches a climax at the end of Act 1 and has nowhere to go, using most of Act 2 as filler until the dénouement. Coal Mine Theatre gives the play its best possible production, but the excellence of the acting only tends to reveal the flaws of the writing.

The play is set in and near the basement of a Christian Fundamentalist church in Cypress, a small town in Texas (which happens to be Askins’s home town). The action begins when a sock puppet appears between the curtains and give us a potted history of humankind’s invention of civilization and religion, including the invention of the concept of the “devil” as an excuse for why otherwise good people do bad things. 

The curtains open onto a busy scene in the church basement where the recently widowed Margery (Nicole Underhay) is supervising the making of hand puppets by her son Jason (Frank Cox-O’Connell) and the teenager Jessica (Amy Keating), who lives next door to Jason. Margery is also trying to get the boy Timmy (Francis Melling) to contribute, but he is intent on being disruptive and insulting Jason and Jessica. He is only there because his mother attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings at the church.

Margery has no other talents than puppet-making so Pastor Greg (Ted Dykstra) has decided this job would help her handle her grief over the death of her husband. As an incentive, he tells her that her troupe must present a puppet play about a bible story to the congregation next Sunday.

Beneath this placid surface currents of desire are flowing. The wimpy kid Jason is too embarrassed to tell Jessica that he likes her even though she is just waiting for him to say so. We find that the only reason Timmy even goes to the puppet classes is so he can be near Margery, whom he believes has given him secret signs that she returns his love. At the same time, Pastor Greg in his own obtuse way, overladen with piety, nurses a secret affection of Margery.

All these buried desires come to the fore in the form of Jason’s puppet Tyrone, which he takes off only when showering or swimming. This same puppet we recognize as the one who addressed us at the top of the show. When Jason is alone with Jessica, we see that Tyrone seems to have a life of his own and speaks of Jason’s desire for Jessica in such a rude way that it scares both Jessica and Jason.

When no one turns up for puppet class except for Pastor Greg making a play for her, Margery goes on a violent rampage. Timmy, who enjoys destruction, helps her trash the basement room and this leads, not very credibly, to Margery and Timmy having wild sex. Meanwhile, Tyrone increasingly takes on a life of his own, one completely counter to Jason’s introverted personality. When Tyrone tells off everyone at the church in his foul-mouther manner, Pastor Greg declares that the puppet is possessed by the devil and indeed, Tyrone proceeds to do various satanic tricks like causing doors to open and lights to burn out.

There is only one question that dominates Act 2, since everyone’s secrets have already come out in Act1. This is, “Will Jason muster the strength to rid himself of Tyrone?” Since the answer to this question comes in the final scene, all the rest of Act 2 feels like filler until Askins arrives at that scene. Events, like Jessica’s puppet flirting with Tyrone, come out of nowhere and lead nowhere, until Jason’s combat with Tyrone. The way this final confrontation is resolved is totally unclear.

The limp second act is a major structural flaw in the play as is the play’s epilogue by Tyrone that sums up the meaning of the play as if we hadn’t been paying attention for the previous two acts. If Askins wants us to regard his play as more than an absurdist farce and heavy-handed satire of religious people, he has to provide some reason why Margery should behave in such a bizarre fashion with the teenaged and unattractive Timmy and why Jason should develop an alternative personality he cannot control or, as Timmy puts it, why Jason should turn into “Dr. Jekyll and Miss Piggy”.

The great pity is that Askins gives us no reason. All we know is that Margery’s husband returned from overseas duty and was so depressed and began to eat so much that he had a heart attack. This really not enough to explain why Margery and Jason, obviously parallel characters, should feel such rage and should manifest it in such different ways. Askins needs to tell us more about what the relationship was between Margery’s husband and her and Jason before his death for us to begin to understand in any rational way why his death should provoke such peculiar forms of grief.

Besides this, Askins’s play is breaking no new ground with his subject matter. The demonic toy or doll is already a well-trod subgenre of horror movies and the demonic puppet is one of the most common occurrences of this trope. The 1989 movie Puppet Master about possessed puppets was followed by ten sequels. Probably the version of this story of the highest artistic quality is “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” segment by Alberto Cavalcanti in the anthology film Dead of Night (1945). The sequence in Askins’s play where Jason fights a battle with Tyrone, who covers his right hand, is very similar to the sequence in The Evil Dead II (1987) by Sam Raimi where a demon possesses Ash’s right hand. Raimi goes farther than Askins by having Ash actually cut off the possessed hand to free himself from the demon, a sequence that appeared on stage in Evil Dead The Musical (2007). 

Given its easy target, lack of motivation for its characters, weak structure and its recycling of a familiar horror movie theme, Askins’s play really has little to recommend it. What makes the show watchable are the excellent performances Mitchell Cushman draws from the entire cast and the extremely clever set design of Anahita Dehbonehie. 

The most demanding role is that of Jason and Frank Cox-O’Connell gives a performance one can’t imagine being bettered. As Jason, Cox-O’Connell is pleasantly meek, withdrawn, soft-spoken and high voiced, but as Tyrone he is frighteningly angry, aggressive, foul-mouthed and gravelly voiced. Though Cox-O’Connell makes no attempt to conceal his lip movements as Tyrone, his body language so successfully separates his right hand covered by the puppet from the rest of his body’s movements that you have to keep reminding yourself there is only one actor playing both roles not two. Cox-O’Connell is so adept at physical comedy that Jason’s various struggles with Tyrone seem like battles between two people and are hilarious.

As Jessica, Amy Keating is the only other cast member to voice a hand puppet. In the single scene where she does so Keating proves she is just as able as Cox-O’Connell to dissociate the rest of her body completely from the hand wearing the puppet. In a totally unnecessary scene that happens to be very funny, the normal voiced Jessica and Jason have a discussion about Jason’s strange situation while her puppet and Tyrone’s have wild sex, the puppets’ cries of rutting adeptly punctuating the two teens’ conversation.

Otherwise, Amy Keating’s character is underwritten. She seems to exist merely as Jason’s would-be girlfriend and has no especially defining qualities. The same is true of Ted Dykstra’s character Pastor Greg. A show about a church needs a pastor and that seems to be the only reason Greg is there. The only feature that gives Greg any interest he how he uses therapeutic calming techniques as a means of getting physically close to Margery and expressing his love. Dykstra does this well by lending the pastor an amusing awkwardness. It’s just too bad this subplot goes nowhere.

Askins really does not give us enough information about Margery’s marriage for us to understand her character. Askins makes her out to be such a proper lady that her angry tantrum and sudden lasciviousness seem to come of of nowhere. Nicole Underhay does her best to make sense of a such a character by portraying Margery as increasingly upset and volatile before her big breakdown. Yet, one suspects that Askins thinks portraying a repressed Christian lady going wild is funny in itself without trying to make much psychological sense of it.

The one character who is most fully realized, strangely enough, is Timmy. It would help to know more about his life with his alcoholic mother, but at least Askins gives him some motivation for his permanent anger and for his idealization of Margery. Francis Melling plays this role so well that we can even sympathize with the confusion and unhappiness of a teen who seems otherwise so obnoxious.

Little do we suspect when the curtain opens on Anahita Dehbonehie’s innocent-looking set of a church basement craft room that it is so ingeniously constructed. Swings are hidden in it for an outdoor scene. So, too, surprisingly, is a car. And most amazing of all is an entire other room, even if the movement between that room and the church basement is not as precise as it could be.

While I would be sorry to have missed Frank Cox-O’Connell’s fantastic performance of a juicy role, there really is little other reason to see Hand to God. Askins offers only clichéd portrayals of repressed Christians and not enough background to understand psychologically the the emergence of aberrant behaviour in Jason and Margery. Over its five years Coal Mine Theatre has brought Toronto the local or even national premieres of many plays like The Father, The Nether, The Aliens, Superior Donuts, Killer Joe and Creditors that other companies have overlooked. Hand to God is unusual in not being a play of similar quality. But that mere fact only shows how high the overall choice of plays has been by this enterprising company that has become so necessary in keeping the Toronto theatre scene vital and exciting.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photo: Frank Cox-O’Connell as Tyrone and Jason; Amy Keating as Jessica, Francis Melling as Timmy, Nicole Underhay as Margery and Ted Dykstra as Pastror Greg; Amy Keating as Jessica and Frank Cox-O’Connell as Tyrone and Jason. © 2019 Kristina Ruddick.

For tickets, visit coalminetheatre.com.