Audience members at “Hand to God” are sent to different parts of Hadley Theatre, according to whether their tickets bear the face of a smirking devil or a blissed-out angel. Angels get relegated to the sides of the seating area, which makes sense: The devil, in all his foul-mouthed glee, holds center stage at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte.
Or does he? Playwright Robert Askins wants us to consider whether Satan’s a scapegoat for our irrepressibly evil urges, our sins committed through malice or frailty. Maybe we even invented a savior to bear the weight of our iniquities, so we wouldn’t have to confront and correct them ourselves.
This serious undercurrent probably earned “Hand” its 2015 Tony nomination. (It lost to the extraordinary “Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.”) While playgoers laughed at the absurdity and winced at foul behavior – including the nastiest use of Silly String in theatrical history – they were thinking a little harder about their responsibility for wickedness in the world.
Like Jason, his protagonist in “Hand to God,” Askins lost his father at 16, and his mother taught parables via Christian puppet theater. But Jason becomes bizarrely attached to his puppet, Tyrone. Or perhaps Tyrone becomes attached to him: After Jason rips the puppet in two, casting it down to prove he can communicate without it, he wakes up with the “healed” Tyrone back on his arm and controlling his actions. It’s a woolen id, expressing every feeling he tries to suppress.
Chester Shepherd does a remarkable job in the dual role, speaking with halting gentleness as confused Jason and rasping malice as tyrannical Tyrone. He’s so adept at switching personalities that we wonder whether the cloth creature really is invested with satanic powers: Maybe he sewed himself together and climbed into Jason’s bed. Yet the bile Tyrone spews comes from Jason’s writhing psyche.
Meanwhile, the world around them teeters wildly. Margery (Marla Brown), who misses her husband as much as her son does, grieves deeply six months after his death. She takes over the puppet theater to keep her mind busy, but it throws her into proximity with two would-be suitors: polite Pastor Greg (Brett Gentile) and pushy delinquent Tim (Grant Zavitkovsky), one of Jason’s classmates. Gracious Jessica (Lizzie Medlin), another classmate, tries unsuccessfully to keep the others from going haywire.
Director Chip Decker, who also designed the church-basement set, gets us laughing through most of the fast-paced first act. He slows the speed a little to let us hear the characters’ sincerity and absorb their pain in the second, and the quiet final coda makes the impact it should.
Both Shepherd and Medlin prove adept puppeteers, especially when their creations become…er…entwined. As in “Avenue Q,” we start to respond to Tyrone as a character: We watch him when he “speaks,” we study his expressions, we treat him as an individual. As we ponder the question of whether Satan actually exists, the tattered little demon in front of us becomes more and more real.
“Hand to God”
When: Through Nov. 25 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday. No show on Thanksgiving.
Where: Queens University's Hadley Theater, 2132 Radcliffe Ave.
Running time: 105 minutes, including one intermission.