Robert Askins’ Hand to God—a five-time Tony nominee and one of the most-produced plays of the year—will make its New England premiere this month at SpeakEasy Stage.
When a puppet at a Christian Puppet Ministry seems to become possessed by a demon, what could go wrong? Inspired in part by a puppet ministry run by Askins’ mother in middle-of-nowhere Texas (though he tells me there were no shenanigans there), Hand to God is a provocative, totally original comedy that should be on everyone’s “must-see” list this winter.
Here, Askins opens up about having one of the most produced plays in America, how Hand to God could have only come from the South, and the perils of striving for goodness.
You’ve had amazing success with Hand to God—off-Broadway, Broadway, West End—and now you continue to have success regionally where this is one of the most produced plays of the year. Is that a unique kind of gratification for you?
Yeah, I mean, there’s less control over it, you know? I’m not in the room, I’m not watching the audience; I’m receiving reports from afar, by and large. But it’s also really satisfying because it does, I think, expose a kind of hunger in the American theater that was there in me. I wanted things that were aggressive, I wanted things that were louder, and I wanted things that were funny; I was not seeing that work getting out there, for whatever reason, and I feel like as a playwright sometimes you just write. You write and write, and sometimes you write a play and you’re trying something … and you manage somehow through a miracle to create a gesture that looks like the theater that you want to see; a play that is as much as play as it is a mission statement, and that is very much what Hand to God was for me. And by mission statement I don’t mean a manifesto. Hand to God embodies the thing that I want to offer the world in the space of the theater. And sometimes I feel like you do that and nobody agrees with you and nobody else wants to see that kind of theater, and then every once in a while people are like, “Yes!” and respond. This is the thing that lights me up. And then to have it go through the ranks of the New York stage and then to find a home in 43 theaters across America is a miracle. It’s just nice to know that you’re not crazy.
Or you are, and everyone really likes it.
Right, or everybody’s crazy in the same way. And that’s just really satisfying on a whole different level. It’s one thing to be in New York writing about the excess of the religious or the passions and the attempts at navigating goodness, and it’s another to do it in Austin or DC or Denver.
Geneva Carr, one of the play’s original actresses, said that Hand to God is something that only an American from the South could have created. What does that mean?
It means a lot of things. My mother grew up in a small town in Vernon, Texas, and there is nothing in that town. The church was everything. The church was the center of your social life, romantic life, intellectual life, and your theatrical life—it was everything. And I think people have trouble sometimes understanding that mono-focus. Some of the stresses that are present in Hand to God are about children who have been very strictly churched being confronted with a secular culture, and the cultural osmosis of bringing in puppets from popular entertainments into the sacred space, and popular music into the sacred space, and the madness that that creates, and trying to shuttle between your deep, deep religious family and a world that you’re immersed in before you have access to public school. So the intensity of that relationship—I don’t think it’s singular, but it has a very specific flavor in the South. I also think the intensity of the mother-son relationship, in the intense patriarchy in the south, the young man as avatar for others’ ambitions, is certainly a very present thing.
So you were raised Lutheran, but are you an atheist now?
I’m not a Richard Dawkins atheist; I’m not a “need to lecture people on the internet of their stupidity of their religious beliefs” atheist. I’m, if anything, a striving agnostic. I can’t call myself a Christian in all good conscience, but I do think that the gestures of my religious upbringing are still with me, and I do love parts of the service, and I love parts of the doctrine, parts of the liturgy. I have very little use for the cultural Christianity and the certain brand of American Christianity that we practice at this moment, I find particularly disgusting.
What is your mother’s reaction to your work?
[laughs] My mother didn’t see any of my work until I moved to New York, and I think there are several factors, like, success helps to breed acceptance. It’s never the easiest thing in the world to watch the play with her [and] we still haven’t had the uncomfortable conversation about it, but she’s seen it in every incarnation. In a lot of ways the play stands in for that conversation, you know?
This play puts forth notions about goodness and badness and the question of “are we good but sometimes slip?” or “are we bad and sometimes behave?” Has writing this play helped you navigate those questions at all?
I think it helped me confront that question. There’s a passage in T.S. Eliot’s “Gerontion” about the inability to know the effect of our actions. There are three lines that essentially say, “You don’t know, asshole.” The thing that you think [is good] can destroy the world and the thing that you think is bad can save it. I think that’s absolutely accurate—so much of what we think is deeply right and wrong is simply etiquette, state-sponsored etiquette, so the insufficiency of that is problematic. With all that, how does one then pretend to be good? If there’s anything to be said about the play it is that it does attempt to show what I think most of America finds a problematic subculture: one that is striving for goodness.
HAND TO GOD. 1.6–2.4 AT THE SPEAKEASY STAGE, 527 TREMONT ST., BOSTON. SPEAKEASYSTAGE.COM
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.