Review: Hand To God at Philadelphia Theatre Company

Philadelphia Theatre Company opened one of its final shows for the 2016-2017 season with the Tony Award-nominated comedy “Hand to God by Robert Askins. The show runs March 31 through April 30, 2017 and Luner on Theatre attended a sunny, Sunday matinee and brings readers an official review of the production!

“At its core, Hand To God truly shows what happens mentally when we are handed a loss in our lives.” — Luner on Theatre​

The regional premiere features an all-Philadelphia cast of talented, yet unique, Equity actors and actresses. The PTC website recommends bringing those over the age of 16, but I would personally bump that up to 18. Some may disagree with me as the Internet and a millennial’s curiosity can answer a lot, but it’s definitely not the type of show I would use to introduce a high schooler to theatre.

“A comical and extreme way to show what is right from wrong.”​ — Luner on Theatre​

The show opens and closes with thoughtful, intricate monologues from none other than the man of the hour (and 45 minute) show, Tyrone. After that we are quickly taken to Texas as Margery (who has recently lost her husband) attempts to reel in her class (including son, Jason) in anticipation of a performance in front of the local churchgoers. At the same time, she is under immense pressure from Pastor Greg and needless to say… things don’t go as planned. Tyrone quickly shows his true colors on the hand of Jason, Margery goes to town with her student, Timothy, and act one concludes with Tyrone biting off a lobe on Timothy’s ear, sending the five-character play into utter pandemonium.

Act two opens to much laughter, as Tyrone and Jason have converted the once holy and tidy classroom into a satanic chamber within the church basement. Complete with red lights, spray paint on the walls, and a true “hot mess express,” this act focuses on “talking Jason off the ledge.” And I say that in quotations as a figure of imagery. There is no ledge, but is similar in style as Margery, Pastor Greg, and classmate Jessie try to strip the devil out of Jason. Many struggles occur in the process, bloodshed continues, but at the end of the show, Jason is not bound for an institution and his mother is not headed to jail either. Tyrone simply becomes a memory, but his lessons stay prevalent.

Grace Gonglewski as Margery encapsulates the consistent struggles of being a single parent. Grieving the loss of her husband from a heart attack while trying to remain faithful to God and raise a son, Gonglewski makes some truly terrible decisions, yet audiences can’t help but understand as her brain and heart are in shambles.

Aubie Merrylees in Philadelphia Theatre Company’s, Hand To God. // Photo provided by: Philadelphia Theatre Company

Aubie Merrylees (featured right) enthusiastically impresses in the roles of Jason and Tyrone. As one of two characters in the play to operate a puppet, Merrylees is the one character that uses puppetry for the entire show. His changes in voice for Tyrone and Jason are independent of each other and fitting as the duo changes mood, motive, and message. While audiences spend the majority of act one, laughing at Merrylees and his quick-witted companion, they see him in a deeper, more meaningful role in act two.

Matteo Scammell without a doubt, steals the show as Jason’s classmate, Timothy. From lights up, Scammell captures humor and stupidity in his role as he claims he is in love with his teacher, Margery. Eventually going the whole way with her in act one, he almost does the dance again in act two, only to be stopped pants-down (and in whitey-tighteys) in front of Pastor Greg.

Matt Pfeiffer helms the production team as director and has done an exceptional job in doing so. His vision is clear, yet authentic to the show that reeled in audiences on Broadway a few years ago. Given the talent of this cast and Pfeiffer’s directional abilities, I am not surprised that I feel this way.

Thom Weaver‘s lighting design is on par, but at times quick. Often between scenes, lights would go up and down quickly, giving my eyes little time to adjust. Daniel Perelstein‘s sound design was in accordance, with gospels and rock ballads alike. Also having penned original music for the show, the only negative is that the levels were definitely on the louder side (while my guest and I were seated in the back of the orchestra).

Robert Askins is to be credited with a lot of the kudos for the show. Having seen bits and pieces when the show premiered on Broadway, despite laughing a lot throughout the show, I also thought about the deeper meanings. While Margery and Jason struggle to find healthy healing after the loss of their husband and father… the chaos that ensues resonates with the mental health picture and how to properly deal with grief. Now obviously there is no one way to “properly” deal with grief, still the concerns are definitely brought to the table.

And at the same time you have the concepts of religion, morality, and right vs. wrong/good vs. bad overarching the entire production. One is taught to truly think their everyday decisions and how they have a bigger or lesser impact in the world we live in. Askins shows his thoughts on the bigger concepts in a brief interview in the program (featured above, left), but I’m sure I will be thinking about these ideas long after this weekend has passed. Questions that are currently arising include…

  • Does committed spirituality and regular devotion to God make up for the often inconsistencies in our moral behavior?
  • Right and wrong are ideas instilled in us from childhood, yet how did those ideas start? And who is to say those visions cannot change?
  • Why does society downplay the wrongdoings of those who are deemed spiritually committed or devoting their life to God? Wrongdoings are wrongdoings no matter who does them, correct?

​”I laughed a lot, but more importantly… I thought.​” — Luner on Theatre

Special events that remain for the run include a Meet-the-Artists talkback on April 13th and April 27th following the evening performances. On April 22nd, audiences can join the PTC staff for a tour of the set and backstage following the matinee performance. A Special Topics Event will be held April 18th while an American Playwrights in Contest event is in the works to be scheduled for some point during the run.

Grace Gonglewski as Margery as William Zielinski as Pastor Greg looks on. // Photo provided by: Philadelphia Theatre Company

Tickets for Hand To God range from $15 – $62 with student, senior citizen, and group discounts available as well. Buy in-person at Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Monday – Friday 10:30 AM – 5:30 PM, by phone via (215) 985-0420 or online at

All media courtesy of: Philadelphia Theatre Company

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  • I went to see Hand to God with my theatre class and it was great. I would recommend it
    to anyone who likes comedy mixed with a little darkness.
    Great Play!!!

    • Hi Joanne,

      Glad to hear you and your class enjoyed the show as well!

      Kind regards,

      Dan Luner
      Philadelphia Theatre Correspondent

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