Salt Lake Acting Company’s “Hand to God,” their most recent production, offers up plenty of dark laughs along with an in-depth look into themes of family, guilt and faith. SLAC’s adaptation of Robert Askins’ five-time Tony nominated play will be sure to shock even the most adventurous of audiences, for all the right reasons.
The production begins with a kind of prologue/monologue delivered by Tyronne, a maniacal hand puppet expertly controlled by actor Riley O’Toole. This monologue traces back to the beginning of man and the subsequent formation of community and establishment of religion which inevitably follows. This opening scene does an excellent job of setting the tone of the play, one that is often profane, dark and thought-provoking.
What follows is a story centered around Jason, a troubled teenage boy struggling to find himself and express what he feels to his devout mother, Marjorie. She is newly widowed and throws herself into her work for the church as she attempts to prepare a sock-puppet show for the congregation. As Jason seeks to let out his repressed feelings of sorrow and understand the nature of his complex emotions, he turns to his sock puppet Tyrone as an outlet. Soon, Tyrone seems to take on a life of his own and his behavior becomes more and more erratic and offensive as the play progresses.
Riely O’Toole, a graduate of the University of Minnesota’s Actor Training Program is given the difficult task of manipulating and bringing to life Tyrone while also acting the part of Jason. What results is an impressive display of puppeteering and a convincing portrayal of a teenager in the midst of a full on split-personality disorder. Even though Jason and Tyrone are on two entirely different ends of the temperament spectrum, O’Toole switches completely from one to the other with admirable speed and credibility.
Another violent and expressive performance comes from Nathan Vaughn, who is currently enrolled as a freshman in the University of Utah’s Actors Training Program. Without giving away too much, Vaughn’s performance truly shines during heated exchanges with Alexandra Harbold who plays the role of Marjorie.
The rest of the cast also give stirring performances, Daniel Beecher presents the audience with a great representation of a caring man who can’t seem to overcome his crippling loneliness. Amy Ware’s portrayal of Jessica during one of the funniest moments of the show impressively combined teenage angst with just the right amount of explicit puppet intercourse.
The not-so-subtle set design change which occurs in-between the first and second act is also a hilarious highlight. Religious posters are covered with satanic graffiti and bloodied barbies are even hung from upside down crosses.
It’s important to note that alongside the brilliance is the fact that this could prove to be a deeply offensive show to some. The profanity is clever and most importantly, gut-wrenchingly funny—but it does abound.
The vulgar nature of this play does serve a purpose. At the end of the day, Askins is getting audiences to look at how grief can affect a family unit and how faith may not be the clear answer. A frank discussion on this subject matter may prove to be controversial in a state like Utah, but it may also be invaluable.
“Hand to God” will be performed Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. from April 12 to May 14. Additional performances will be taking place on Tuesday, May 2 at 7:30 p.m. and on Saturday, May 13 at 2 p.m.
Single tickets range from $15.00 to $42.00, depending on the performances. Student discounts do apply; you can call their box office at 801-363-7522 or visit their website at www.saltlakeactingcompany.org for further information on pricing.
The Salt Lake Acting Company is located at 168 West 500 South across from Washington Elementary.