Through Sunday, May 6
Theatre in the Park, Raleigh

It’s an achievement in physical acting when a performer can persuade an audience that he’s locked in mortal combat with a sock puppeteven more so when the puppet is clearly winning.

Full credit, then, goes to Ira David Wood IV, who plays (simultaneously, at times) the roles of Jason, a nerdy teenage puppeteer, and Tyrone, his abrasive, possibly demonic sock puppet and alter ego, in the year’s least likely morality play, Hand to God, now at Theatre in the Park.

In Robert Askins’s irreverent-to-blasphemous 2015 Broadway farce, Jason’s an increasingly unwilling member of a teen puppet-ministry troupe at a small-town Texas church. Why? For one thing, he’s at that awkward age when he’s easy prey for budding juvenile delinquents like Timmy (a brash Kenny Hertling), while Jessica (Lorelei Lemon), the goth girl next door, remains an unapproachable mystery.

Then there’s Tyrone. Sure, the gruff-voiced, bushy-headed, bug-eyed scamp (designed by Marilyn Gormon) was fun at the start, as a partner for memorable old Abbott and Costello routines (including the one expertly excerpted here). But Tyrone has grown more domineering, more autonomous, and more critical of Jason’s milquetoast waystough behavior to take from any creative partner, particularly from a doctored piece of knitted footwear at the end of your right arm.

Wood crisply plays the growing schism between Jason and Tyrone in exchanges that increasingly bewilder the hapless teen and all around him. After the knockdown brawl mentioned above, the puppet sets the puppeteer straight about who’s the senior partner. Later, Tyrone serenades Jessica with a soulful tribute to the Righteous Brothers before squaring off against Timmy, all but dragging Jason along for the ride.

“Don’t look at the kid, asshole, look at me!” Tyrone roars at the bully. When Timmy mocks the puppet, Tyrone softly snarls, “Look at the kid … and tell me which one you think is in control.”

When all hell breaks loose, Jason’s mom, a beleaguered widow (Kathy Day), is convinced that Jason is possessed, but the church’s pastor (Chris Brown), remains more skeptical. We should be as well. For all his extremes, Tyrone is trying to teach Jason lessons a fatherless child will need to grow up. And as Tyrone tells us, people have used god and the devil as proxies for millennia, attributing our most uncomfortable thoughts and acts to both. This is a burlesque of religion, which remains the longest-running puppet show on record.