Review: Funny and thought-provoking ‘Hand to God’ comes to Philadelphia Theatre Company

Aubie Merrylees in “Hand to God” at PTC. Photo by Mark Garvin.

By Gwen Armstrong Barker

The Philadelphia Theatre Company’s uproariously funny, thought-provoking production of “Hand to God” is definitely not for the whole family. However, it’s well worth the price of a sitter.

The show opens with a monologue under a single spotlight by a sock puppet that nicely frames the larger questions behind the show.

Act one begins with broad humor and high energy.  The story is set in the small, deeply Christian town of Cypress, Texas, where Jason, a straight-laced teenager  (Aubie Merrylees) is trying to manage the recent loss of his father.  He and his grieving mother Margery (Grace Gonglewski) are working to move on with life by running a puppet group in their church basement.  Joined by juvenile delinquent Timothy (Matteo J. Scammell) and girl next door Jessica (Alex Keiper), the team jockeys for affection and approval from one another while preparing for a performance at the church.  Meanwhile, Pastor Greg (William Zielinski) checks in repeatedly on Margery, hoping for romantic encouragement.

Jason’s relationship with his sock puppet, Tyrone, is complicated to say the least.  After a forced performance of “Yes, Jesus Loves Me”, Tyrone takes on a mind of its own, insulting and shocking everyone around him.  The audience is left to wonder whether Jason is speaking through the puppet or Tyrone is possessed.

While for the most part act two maintains the show’s broad humor and pace, it also takes a few key scenes to slow down and show moments of tenderness and depth of feeling.  This brings an added dimension to the characters, particularly for Pastor Greg and Jessica,  that wasn’t present in act one and makes the story much more meaningful.

The entire cast turns out wonderful performances.  Grace Gonglewski (Margery) does a marvelous job communicating a complex mix of grief, rage and impulse, all without losing her comic timing. Mateo Scammell brings a perfect mix of swagger and vulnerability to Timothy.  Alex Keiper’s portrayal of Jessica is sweet, resourceful and compelling. And William Zielinski’s Pastor Greg patiently creates a polite proper veneer in act one, and goes on to reveal a strong and capable anchor in act two.

Of particular note is Aubie Merrylees’ performance as Jason/Tyrone.  He brings a lovely depth to Jason as a troubled boy who is breaking under the weight of his mother’s need.  His puppetry (under the direction of the masterful Robert Smythe) is first-rate and Tyrone is a living, breathing id throughout the show.   There are a number of scenes between Jason and Tyrone, and Merrylees does a wonderful job differentiating the characters and bringing genuine tension to the moment.

The production quality and direction by Matt Pfeiffer is also first-rate, the sets props and lighting are incredibly imaginative, and the staging handles the myriad locations nicely.

“Hand to God” runs through April 30.  There are also Meet the Artist Talk Backs after the show on April 13 and 27 and a backstage tour available on April 22 after the matinee. Performances run Tuesdays through Sundays until April 30.  Tickets starting at $15 are available by calling the PTC Box Office at 215-985-0420 or visiting PhiladelphiaTheatreCompany.org.