Chicago Theatre Review
The Devil is in the Details
Hand to God – Victory Gardens Theatre
Perhaps the devil made him do it, but Robert Askins’ dark, irreverent, riveting comic drama is about honesty and dealing with grief. At its core, we have a story of a teenaged boy and his mother, both hurting deep inside, trying to come to terms with the shocking death of a father and husband. Margery has been put in charge of a church-sponsored puppetry workshop by her minister, Pastor Greg, supposedly to give the mourning young widow an outlet for her bereavement and partially to provide his young parishioners with creative involvement in the Lutheran church.
First produced Off-Broadway in 2011 and 2014, Askins’ sassy, shocking comedy eventually premiered on Broadway the following year, where it was nominated for five Tony Awards, including Best Play. With its recent release to regional theatres, his comic drama has currently become the most-produced play in the country. This highly anticipated Chicago production, under the sharp, insightful direction of Gary Griffin, is top-notch in every way.
First is the script itself. This playwright has crafted a smart, well-written play using dark humor, jaw-dropping dialogue, compelling characters, an unbelievable story and outrageous situations to tell a moving story about how people cope with tragedy. It looks at man’s belief in the presence of both God and Satan in today’s world, and how organized religion is employed to provide comfort to those in need.
Next, this production features an imaginatively clever and versatile set, designed by Joe Shermoly, and stocked with detailed dressing and props by Michael Dold. Then there’s Rachel Christianson’s inspired puppet designs, with their usage guided by Daniel Dempsey. David Woolley also meets the challenge of this script with some powerful, authentic fight choreography.
Then there’s Gary Griffin’s sensitive and wise direction. Everything from the Broadway production is there, but here we find an added layer of empathy for these five damaged characters. All of them are hurting, in one way or another, and audiences will share in their emotional journeys in a way that the original production seemed to neglect. This might be attributed to the relative intimacy of this venue, but it can’t be denied that Mr. Griffin knows how to tap into the heart of his characters with everything he directs.
Of course it’s ultimately in the hands of this talented cast to bring the story to life. And what an excellent ensemble this production can boast! Janelle Snow, who often resembles a young Julia Roberts, is magnificent as the Texan widow who suddenly finds herself in the midst of a hellish situation, not unlike that of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. At first Margery is a quietly suffering widow, simply trying to help her young son and herself cope with her husband’s death. Then suddenly, Ms. Snow soars as woman faced with a much more challenging conflict. As the actress journeys through this 90-minute, two-act play, she grows stronger and more passionate, ever the grizzly mama ready to fight and do anything necessary to save her son, as well as herself.
Curtis Edward Jackson, so excellent in recent productions of “A Splintered Soul” and “Brilliant Adventures,” adds another feather to his cap as the antagonistic, oversexed punk, Timothy. Smartly, Mr. Jackson doesn’t simply play this role as a one note villain; he travels his own personal road of pain and frustration, lashing out at everyone weaker than himself and seeking love from the one person who’s ready to provide it. Nina Ganet is feisty and fervent as Jessica, the young girl next door who alone seems to really like and care for Jason. Her modus operandi in this play is simple: she enjoys the creativity provided by working with her puppet and, when confronted by a supernatural calamity, remains levelheaded and makes good choices. She’s the audience’s onstage surrogate in this production.
Eric Slater, such a talent in recent productions of “Diary of Anne Frank” and “Feathers & Teeth,” is powerful as Paster Greg. Slater’s character at first brings his own smarmy personal agenda into helping Margery but, when push comes to shove, he returns to the greater good as the leader of his flock. Again, in this production, Griffin has chosen to carefully direct Mr. Slater in a way that he’s not a mere two-dimensional character. Pastor Greg has wants and needs of his own, but he’s first and foremost a minister to the needs of his congregation.
But, as would be expected, it’s Alex Weisman’s stunning portrayal of Jason/Tyrone (his evil hand puppet) that makes this production a must-see. Mr. Weisman has turned in some wonderful performances in the past. Notably he’s impressed audiences in “My Name is Asher Lev,” “You Never Can Tell” and, of course, his award-winning “The History Boys;” but this may be the role for which he’ll forever after be remembered. Come next year’s AEA Jeff Awards, there can be little doubt that this talented young actor will be among the nominees for Best Actor. Weisman straddles a pointed picket fence of being a shy, troubled teenager one minute and a muck-mouthed monster the next. Theatergoers are left pondering whether Jason, himself, is being possessed by the devil or if his hand puppet, Tyrone, is actually Satan. In many ways, Askins’ dark comedy may be a contemporary version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with the puppet offering the boy a means of venting his deep-seated anger and frustration. In any case, Weisman’s switch, sometimes even mid-sentence, between a sweet, innocent victim and a foul-mouthed foe is astounding to behold. His performance is definitely worthy of the heartfelt standing ovation he receives nightly.
Ever since Biblical times the devil’s been blamed for everything from loss and accidents to illness and death. He’s a scapegoat used to absorb every unpleasantry under the sun. In Robert Askins’ remarkably entertaining and mesmerizing black comedy, it’s that same enfant terrible who’s deemed responsible for one particular young boy’s behavior. Don’t assume, however, that this play, because it features puppets, is a family show. This very adult play, filled with four-letter expletives and simulated sex, may be viewed as a supernatural story or a cautionary tale about the extreme effects of sublimated anger. But, at the heart of this tale, we have a moving, heartfelt story about people facing grief, fear and honesty, however controversial and soul-searching. This is an evening of theatre audiences will never forget because the devil most certainly is in the details.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented September 16-October 23 by Victory Gardens Theater at the Biograph, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-871- 3000 or by going to www.victorygardens.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.