David A. Lee
Eddie Vona, Brenna Williams, Yo Younger and Danny Gomez in Dezart Performs’ production of Hand to God. Credit: David A. Lee

Great theater should do more than just entertain us. Ideally, it challenges us, uplifts us—or stuns and outrages us, and perhaps forces us to re-examine some of our core beliefs. Dezart Performs’ production of Robert Askins’ Broadway hit Hand to God does all that—and more.

The story is set in a church basement in suburban Cypress, Texas. Just-widowed Margery (Yo Younger) has assembled a small group of volunteers to put on a Christian puppet show. In attendance are her troubled teenage son, Jason (Eddie Vona); his secret crush, Jessica (Brenna Williams); and local bad-boy Timothy (Danny Gomez).

Jason’s anger and grief over the loss of his father are raw. He blames Margery for not being able to provide the emotional support his dad apparently needed. Instead, the man turned to food for comfort—and ate his way into a fatal heart attack. Margery is also adrift; the loss of her husband—with the emotional and financial support he provided—has left her anxious. Compounding Margery’s stress are not-so-subtle sexual advances from both teenage Timothy and the church’s pastor, Greg (Roy Abramsohn).

Things start spinning out of control when Jason’s sock puppet, named Tyrone, begins describing Jason’s attraction to the mild-mannered Jessica in a lewd manner. Mortified by Jessica’s embarrassment, Jason attempts to muzzle Tyrone—to no avail. Seemingly possessed by the devil, Tyrone becomes increasingly obscene and violent. No one is spared: Every character gets a taste of the puppet’s vitriol, even Jason himself. It’s as if every bitter, hateful thing Jason ever wanted to say, but was afraid to, is now coming out of Tyrone’s mouth.

Jason’s ongoing battle with Tyrone is intense, often ugly, and almost always hilarious. At one point, Jessica shows up with a female sock puppet, which she offers up for therapy. Of course, chaos ensues.

Once again, director Michael Shaw has assembled a stellar cast. Each actor delivers a dynamite performance, but special mention must be made of Eddie Vona. He deftly conveys the angst of a boy mourning his father, who’s also conflicted about religion and his burgeoning sexuality. Vona’s puppeteering skill with Tyrone is outstanding, especially in the rapid-fire exchanges Jason and Tyrone have with each other. The audience becomes absolutely convinced that Tyrone is an autonomous being, not just a sock with felt hair being manipulated by someone else.

The always-superb Yo Younger does not disappoint. Prim and proper early in the play, and outwardly displaying the appropriate religious devotion, we see the sadness in her eyes—the fear and loneliness of widowhood, the regret over her rocky relationship with her son, and the worry about where life will take her next. When it all explodes, we are momentarily stunned … but then it suddenly all makes sense. No one can stay that buttoned-up forever; something’s got to give. Younger gives Mrs. Robinson a run for her money in a true tour de force performance.

As sneering, bad-boy Timothy, Danny Gomez is fabulous. Tall and well-built, he’s a physically imposing presence onstage. Think of a foul-mouthed, more brazenly sexual Vinnie Barbarino.

Roy Abramsohn is perfect as Pastor Greg. He exudes a fantastic combination of smarmy piety and barely concealed lust, with great comic timing. When the pastor suggests an exorcism to get rid of Tyrone, Jason asks, “Isn’t there supposed to be a young priest and an old priest?” Greg replies: “We’re not Catholic!”

Brenna Williams is quite good as the innocent Jessica. She, too, has some memorable comic moments. Early on, she chides Timothy: “You are so far back in the closet, you’re in Narnia!” Her facial expressions during a lengthy puppet sex scene are priceless.

The colorful, whimsical set is excellent, as are the sound, lighting and costumes.

Congratulations once again to Shaw for choosing yet another provocative, entertaining play that pushes the envelope. Dezart Performs’ production of Hand to God is hilarious, but not for the faint of heart. It touches on subjects some may find uncomfortable—good versus evil, demonic possession and rough sex. But then again, isn’t touching on uncomfortable subjects what good theater is all about?

Dezart Performs’ production of Hand to God is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Nov, 17, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $35 to $40, and the running time is just less than two hours, with a 15-minute intermission. For more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.com.

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Bonnie Gilgallon

Bonnie Gilgallon, a theater reviewer for the Independent since 2013, is an award-winning stage actress and singer who performs at many venues around the valley. She also hosts “The Culture Corner,”...