All sorts of demons are unleashed in “Hand to God,’’ a sulfurous comedy by Robert Askins that twists the classic coming-of-age tale into a new and jagged shape.
Yes, there will be blood, along with some good nasty fun, as startling events unfold in the life of Jason, a Texas teenager possessed by a satanic sock puppet, Tyrone. Picture Kermit the Frog gone very, very bad. The lad’s transformation from dutiful son to ferociously profane rebel engenders considerable dismay in his mother, Margery — although it’s not long before Margery lifts the lid on her own id, with tumultuous results.
“Hand to God’’ is ultimately not sturdy enough to support the big ideas that Askins front-loads onto it: about free will, the connection between thought and action, the wayward behavioral pathways to which guilt or grief can lead us, the precarious balance in the human psyche between good and evil. At times, the play’s balance between black comedy and psychological horror story is equally precarious.
But the playwright’s onrushing energy seldom flags, and neither does that of David R. Gammons’s production of “Hand to God’’ at SpeakEasy Stage Company.
A past master of theater-as-steel-cage-match, Gammons brings a genuinely unsettling edge to “Hand to God,’’ which recently wrapped up a run on Broadway. But the director also clears enough emotional space for the occasional heartfelt moment to hit home — and such moments are necessary to make us care about the people onstage and keep the play from registering as merely a macabre cartoon. (Something similar was true of earlier Gammons productions at SpeakEasy of thematically and stylistically challenging work, such as Samuel D. Hunter’s “The Whale,’’ featuring a 600-pound protagonist, and Stephen Adly Guirgis’s “The [Expletive] With the Hat.’’)
“Hand to God” takes place in a church basement in Cypress, Texas, where Margery is leading preparations for a show by teenage participants in the church’s Christian Puppet Ministry. Decorated in vivid primary colors, the basement features the message “Jesus Will Wash Away Your Sins’’ in cardboard lettering atop a rear wall (scenic design is by Cristina Todesco). Andrew Duncan Will’s rumbling sound design creates an ominous vibe, while Jeff Adelberg’s lighting design keeps the audience off-balance with sudden, jolting shifts into a supernatural atmosphere. Puppet designer Jonathan Little has conjured an extremely creepy Tyrone, with puppetry direction by Roxanna Myhrum of Puppet Showplace Theater.
Playing both Jason and Tyrone, Eliott Purcell demonstrates a remarkable ability to juggle the contrasting personae of bewildered boy and bullying puppet in the same scene. If anything, Purcell is even more impressive when that contrast evaporates and the two personae scarily merge into one. Marianna Bassham, an actress of long-proven expertise in portrayals of characters who are teetering in states of disequilibrium, skillfully dramatizes Margery’s transition from tremulously proper church lady to a woman capable of a near-feral ferocity, especially when she gives free rein to her libido.
The temptation to which Margery succumbs goes by the name of Timothy (Dario Ladani Sanchez, excellent), an angrily sardonic student from a troubled home. Lewis D. Wheeler is solid as Pastor Greg, leader of the church, but playwright Askins seems uncertain whether the pastor should be seen as the conscience of the play or a censorious prig.
One of the central questions of “Hand to God’’ is posed early in Act 2 by Jessica (Josephine Elwood), the girl Jason has a crush on: “Is it the puppet that’s possessed, or Jason?’’ Another question: Are both Jason and Margery revealing their true selves in “Hand to God’’? Although demonic doings are clearly afoot, the play suggests that Jason’s out-of-control behavior also has roots in his unresolved grief over the death of his father and his bitterness toward his mother, whom he blames for the dad’s death.
Playwright Askins nods knowingly in the direction of “The Exorcist’’ a couple of times. “Hand to God’’ also brings to mind the underrated 1978 film “Magic,’’ which starred Anthony Hopkins as a ventriloquist under the malign influence of his dummy, and also, inevitably, “Avenue Q,’’ especially in the scene of puppet sex. This is probably a good place to emphasize what should already be clear: that “Hand to God” is not suitable for young children. Heck, even grown-ups who see this play may never look at puppet shows the same way again.
HAND TO GOD
Play by Robert Askins. Directed by David R. Gammons. Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company. At Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts. Through Feb. 4. Tickets: 617-933-8600, www.speakeasystage.comDon Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.