At the core of Hand to God, which opened Oct. 21 at Boise Contemporary Theater, are two obnoxious staples of American culture: the redemptive power of faith and the superficial charm of the egomaniacal. It is to the credit of American playwright Robert Askins that the play skewers them both without discrediting either.
Margery (Kittson O'Neill), leaning on her church after the death of her husband, is trying to make ends meet running a Christian puppet ministry that features her talented but increasingly disturbed son, Jason (Dwayne Blackaller). Her devotion, however, does little to shield her against advances from needy Pastor Greg (Joe Conley Golden) or Sunday school reprobate Timothy (Jonathan Bangs).
In a play full of moral, ethical and legal dilemmas, the Tyler Durden-esque control of Jason by a hand puppet named Tyrone is one of the splashiest. The foul-mouthed Tyrone instructs his reluctant host to follow his confusing impulses toward sex and violence, and he uses fear to keep Jason in check—Tyrone threatens Jason with extreme harm should the teen ever try removing the puppet.
The characters are at their most honest when the roles of religion and self interest are reversed. Jason and his romantic interest, Jessica (Veronica Von Tobel), use their sexual attraction to open up a more substantive chemistry between them. Greg puts aside his sickly, pastor-ly front to minister the kind of straight talk that redeems characters in each other's eyes. The play explores the possibility that belief in a higher power and a robust sense of self are essential, and not mutually exclusive.
Blackaller, dressed in jeans rolled at the cuff, a striped shirt and his hair in a bowl cut looked like an adult version of Dennis the Menace. This is not Blackaller's first go at playing a teen, and with each passing year, his youthful forays become less convincing. Blackaller is a virtuoso with the puppet but a kid in the throes of awakening sexuality and angst he is not.
However, the production radiates humor, and characters drip with sarcasm and wit. So does a sense of thwarted-ness. The belly laughs are real, and so are the stakes.