Lea Madda and Luke Wehner in CVRep's production of Hand to God. Credit: David A. Lee

Robert Askins’ Hand to God starts innocently enough. Recent widow Margery (Aleisha Force) is teaching puppetry to three teens in a colorful church basement—but her pupils are less than enthusiastic. Things deteriorate quickly.

Margery’s troubled son, Jason (Luke Wehner), is struggling to deal with the loss of his father. Timothy (Blake Kevin Dwyer) is a sullen, over-sexed bad boy who is lusting after Margery. Bookish, awkward Jessica (Lea Madda) tries valiantly to feign interest in the proceedings.

Then Jason’s puppet, Tyrone, begins blurting out mentions of Jason’s growing attraction to Jessica—in very vulgar terms. Tyrone soon turns his vitriol on the others, even Jason himself. In obscenity-laced diatribes, Tyrone attacks everyone. He seems to be verbalizing the suppressed teenage anger Jason cannot express himself.

The loss of her husband has hit Margery hard. She’s harboring guilt that perhaps she didn’t do enough to stop him from eating himself into a heart attack. Margery’s also fending off the unwanted romantic advances of the church’s pastor, Greg (Kenny Stevenson). Following yet another confrontation with him, Margery’s frustrations get the better of her, and she begins trashing the church basement. When Timothy shows up and joins in … they get caught up in the heat of the moment.

While Tyrone’s in-your-face hostility initially seems to be a coping mechanism for Jason, everyone soon begins to wonder if the puppet might actually be possessed by the devil. When Pastor Greg decides that an exorcism is in order, Jason asks: “Isn’t there supposed to be a young priest and an old priest?”

While Tyrone’s behavior is often violent, Hand to God is actually very funny. A scene in which Tyrone has wild puppet sex with a female puppet controlled by Jessica is hilarious.

The acting here is impressive, and special mention must be made of Luke Wehner as Jason/Tyrone. He seamlessly segues from Jason’s mild-mannered, normal teen angst to Tyrone’s crass sadism. Though Tyrone is really just an inanimate object made of cloth and felt, Wehner somehow makes us believe he is alive—and terrifying. It is a stellar performance.

Aleisha Force is terrific as Margery. The character’s jumble of emotions come across as truly genuine. She’s trying to keep a lid on a bubbling cauldron of grief, guilt, loneliness, loss and frustration. When it all explodes in a fit of anger and lust, we understand.

Blake Kevin Dwyer’s performance as Timothy is wonderful. He’s the smart-mouthed, testosterone-driven guy many of us knew back in high school. Yet we know that underneath all the bravado, he’s just a guy looking for love and acceptance.

Aleisha Force and Kenny Stevenson in CVRep’s production of Hand to God.

As the innocent Jessica, Lea Madda is quite good. Despite her naivete, she sometimes seems like the voice of reason amid all this chaos … and she seems unfazed by her participation (or at least her arm’s participation) in the somewhat graphic scene of puppet sex.

Rounding out the cast nicely is Kenny Stevenson as Pastor Greg. He strikes the perfect balance between piety and his not-so-subtle lust for Margery.

Director Craig Wells does an excellent job here. Each character is well-defined, and he keeps the action moving along. Once again, Jimmy Cuomo’s set is perfect. The lighting sound, costumes, hair and makeup all work well.

CVRep’s Hand to God is not for the faint of heart; there is no shortage of sex and bad language. It is dark and disturbing—while quite funny at the same time. The play deals with lust, anger, grief, religious hypocrisy, good, evil and violence … in short, the human condition.

Leaving the theater, the news of yet another school shooting was running through my head. What if disturbed people with violent tendencies could get it all out through a hand puppet rather than an assault rifle? It’s an unrealistic idea, perhaps, but oh, how much better off we’d be.

Hand of God will be performed at 7 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, April 9, at the CVRep Playhouse, 68510 E. Palm Canyon Drive, in Cathedral City. Tickets are $63, and the running time is 105 minutes, with one intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

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,”...