Theatre in the Park‘s second show for 2018 is a dark comedy by Robert Askins titled Hand to God. The show focuses on a very troubled youngster who recently lost his father, is dominated by his mother, cannot relate to girls, and bears the brunt of jokes by the local tough guy. The boy is a mess, but, it seems, he’s not the only one.

Hand to God takes place in the basement of a local church, where the members of a small group of puppeteers meet weekly to try and develop a performance routine. This is the brainchild of Margery (Kathy Day), a bustling middle-aged Christian woman who is trying to keep busy since she lost her husband six months ago. The troubled youngster referenced above is her son, Jason (Ira David Wood IV), who is also struggling since the loss. Their little troupe, the “Christ-keteers,” has two other members as well: Jessica (Lorelei Lemon) and Tim (Kenny Hertling), the local tough guy who cares not a whit for anything, cannot contribute to the task at hand, insults both Jessica (who can take it) and Jason (who can’t), and, inexplicably, keeps trying to put the moves on Margery. Complicating the issue is Pastor Greg (Chris Brown), the leader of the church, and the man who arranged this little troupe for Margery. It seems that Margery is a love interest for the pastor as well.

There is nothing here that’s new. What’s new is Tyrone, a sock puppet that Jason has created. While dutifully portraying the religious tones of their church during rehearsals, Jason is also using Tyrone to voice some of the things that he himself cannot. He entertains Jessica with the old Abbott and Costello routine “Who’s on First,” and when Tim shows up and gets insulting, as he is wont to do, Jason – who could never do such a thing himself – uses Tyrone to tell Tim to shut up and get lost.

But Tyrone seems, as the first act progresses, to get more gruff, more direct, and more aggressive as things at rehearsal get more complicated. Tim admits to Margery that he’s in love with her; Pastor Greg, when he arrives to tell Margery that they will be performing at next Sunday’s service, also tells Margery his feelings for her. So Jason’s mom must spurn the advances of two very different suitors, while at the same time trying to get through to Jason, who has become distant to her and circumspect. And Tyrone is getting downright foul-mouthed.

Up to this point, things seem still to be commonplace. But all that is about to change. As events progress, Tyrone also seems to progress, along a line that nobody, especially Jason, likes. Tyrone takes on a life of his own, and not a very pretty one. By the end of Act I, everyone, cast and audience alike, is convinced that Tyrone is possessed by the Devil.

Hand to God, if you haven’t guessed by this point, is an R-rated comedy, and a triple-threat one, at that, for language, sex, and violence. Not a show for the kids, to be sure. Some of the scenes would give them nightmares, and the sex is pretty graphic, even if the participants are puppets. Things go downhill very fast, and by the end of Act I, Jason and Tyrone are locked in the basement, Tim and Margery have had a monumental roll in the hay, and Pastor Greg is ready to call the cops on the lot of them. Tyrone, by this time, controls Jason, rather than the other way around.

Hand to God is a swift play, running under two hours, even with an intermission. Things happen quickly. Jessica, who has created her own puppet, Jolene, climbs through the window of Jason’s prison to confront Tyrone. Jessica, it turns out, is one smart cookie. But the thing that no one is wise to, at least on the surface, is that it is Tyrone who is breaking down the structures that hold all of these cast members frozen where they are. Tyrone makes Jason confront Tim, and exposes Tim for the bully he is. Tyrone fights with Jason himself, making him admit that he blames his mother for his father’s death. Tyrone punctures the hot-air balloon of piety that surrounds all of these characters with a thin veneer of religious sanctimony. One begins to wonder if Tyrone is indeed possessed, or instead on hand to break the dam of terrible feelings rampant in these characters, and allow the flood of emotions to let go.

There is quite a lot of humor in the show; this audience was very much into it, applauding after every scene. Ira David Wood IV, who also directed this show, showed great athleticism during an epic physical struggle in Act II as Jason tries to rid himself of this seemingly evil puppet. But Tyrone is not leaving until things, as he sees them, are set on a different path than the one he entered to disrupt.

Because the show is a comedy, everything seems to turn out for the best, even though there is still a long way to go before anyone feels happy again. Each different character is uniquely played by this cast to represent this aspect. And, there is a lot of physicality in the show. Even though we never actually see Margery and Tim have sex, their physical relationship and its perversity is thoroughly evident. To call the language colorful is a euphemism; it is indeed graphic. There are very dark emotions running in a swift undercurrent throughout the show, and the one singular act of violence that takes place onstage is bloody and extremely frightening.

Nevertheless, in regular comedic fashion, things are better at the end of this show than they were at the beginning. But it takes the intercession of – let’s just call it a metaphysical being – to achieve those results. Tyrone may very well be a demon or a devil, but he might also be something entirely different.

Hand to God takes place mostly in the basement of the church, where the “Christ-keteers” practice. This looks exactly like any other room in a church fellowship hall, with small, high set windows, cinderblock walls, and lots of religious posters to try to brighten the room. This room also contains the puppet stage. Each scene setting in this show is different from the last, and various other places have to be depicted, like the playground outside, and the car that Margery and Jason own. Those sets were pretty well-handled, but the office of Pastor Greg gave the production team fits; it is a huge backdrop with a desk, computer, and telephone, and it had to be rolled out from backstage through a door in the set. This set change happens three times, and the set changers never did get it exactly right. The set design is by Nathaniel Conti; perhaps he can work with the crew to get this ironed out.

Hand to God is an adult comedy and thus not for everyone. I noted the couple behind me when she told her date she was very glad her parents had not come! But for sheer reality and in-your-face action, this is a funny show that, despite its negative aspects, is surprising, witty, and very much a fly-in-the-face-of-convention theatrical stunner of a play. IDW4 manages to do something he learned from his dad, he directs and takes the lead in a unique and very well-handled production. If you are one who likes your comedy bare-faced and ultra-real, this work is a gas. But be forewarned: there are aspects of this show that will stun you like a blow to the head.

Hand to God continues through Sunday, May 6. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.