Midway through Hand to God, a pink sock puppet attempts to bite off a classroom bully's ear. By this point in Triangle Productions' staging of the Tony Award-winning play, the act of savagery isn't especially shocking, since the puppet, Tyrone, has already insulted a man's penis and indulged in some unsettling sexual harassment.
More than just a vicious monster, Tyrone is the embodiment of the rage and grief of Jason (Caleb Sohigian), a fatherless teenage boy. Set in Texas, Hand to God is a comedy, but it's also the portrait of a child driven to the edge of sanity by the loss of a parent. In a sort of Frankenstein riff, Tyrone voices truths that Jason, his creator, is too afraid to speak.
Those truths bring chaos to the Christian Puppet Ministry, where Jason's mother Margery (Sarah Lucht) teaches. It's a land of cutesy religious propaganda—including a Coca-Cola-style poster that reads, "Enjoy Jesus." But the Ministry's wholesome facade is shredded when it's revealed that Margery has had sex with Timothy (Colton Ruscheinsky), one of her students, a revelation that triggers brutal outbursts from Jason. Tyrone becomes his mouthpiece for the repressed, volcanic anguish that's been brewing inside Jason.
During the traumatic scenes that follow, Sohigian brilliantly sustains the illusion that Jason and Tyrone are two halves of one soul, trying to balance a need for control with a longing to strike out. Yet the dialogue still hits some false notes that the production can't quite overcome. Particularly frustrating is the play's refusal to acknowledge how disturbing it is that Margery would have sex with a teenage boy—there's even a line that goes so far as to include a joke about Margery and Timothy breaking a sink in a fit of passion.
Yet whenever Hand to God loses you, it pulls you back in, often with its potent sound design. From the music on the car radio while Margery drives to the sound of crickets while Jason lies in his sleeping bag, every noise immerses you in the story, making you feel as if you're within Jason's world as he wrestles with whether he is going to overcome his worst instincts or surrender to the devil that clings to his arm.
SEE IT: Hand to God is at The Sanctuary at Sandy Plaza, 1785 NE Sandy Blvd., trianglepro.org. 7:30 pm Thursday-Saturday, September 7-September 30, 2:00 pm Sunday, September 17-24. $15-$35.