Fragility of faith, morality come to life in Players' production of Hand to God
The Community College of Rhode Island Players close out the first half of their 2023–24 theater season this weekend with a production of Hand to God, an irreverent, dark comedy that touches upon themes of death, depression, religion, and the battle between good and evil through the lens of a crude sock puppet.
Written by Robert Askins, Hand to God takes place in a small, religious town of Cypress, TX, where recently-widowed Margery and her troubled son Jason are trying to figure out what to do next following the death of Jason’s father. Margery finds solace by taking over the local church’s Christian Puppet Ministry, and her son soon takes a liking to puppetry until his puppet, Tyrone, develops a life of its own as a foul-mouthed agitator who wreaks havoc on everything – and everyone – in its inner circle.
Hand to God premiers this Thursday, December 7 at 7:30 pm at CCRI’s Liston Campus Theater in Providence with additional showings Friday at 7:30, Saturday at 2 and 7:30, and Sunday at 2. Tickets are available at the box office.
Winner of the 2014 Off Broadway Alliance Best New Play Award and a five-time Tony Award nominee, Hand to God will leave the audience “laughing at things you shouldn’t be laughing at,” admits CCRI Performing Arts Professor and the play’s director Luke Sutherland. The use of dark humor throughout the play allows Askins to broach difficult subjects such as grief, alcoholism, and sexuality, among others, and make them palatable.
Sutherland himself has used the play in classroom settings at CCRI, where one of his visits helped recruit the play’s lead, Chris Dunlaevy of North Kingstown, RI, who also starred in the Players’ season-opening production of The Laramie Project in October. Among the many themes discussed in the play, Sutherland says what stands out most is the concept of “taking ownership of your behavior,” which Askins discussed in a recent interview. The characters in Hand to God all deal with repressed urges, many of which come to light through their use of puppets, which act as the characters’ doppelgangers and, in some cases, caricatures.
The question, Sutherland says, is “are we good people who are sometimes bad, or bad people pretending to be good?” The play takes many dark – and violent – twists and turns as Jason continues to battle his alter-ego puppet while exposing many of the base impulses that most people harbor to some degree. The psychological depths Askins touches upon strangely mirror society’s unsettling times, especially for many of today’s struggling youth. With so many tie-ins, Sutherland said, his students unanimously chose Hand to God a year ago as a play they wanted to perform during the 2023–24 season.
Hand to God stars Dunlaevy, Gabriella Seal (Cranston, RI), Noah Goldman (Portsmouth, RI), Jena Hindy (Cranston, RI), and Max Kattawar (Cranston, RI) and features students Nate Campbell (Johnston, RI), Ilyus Evander (Providence, RI), and Shelby Cray (Bristol, RI) as props designers.