1st Stage Theater kicked off its 2017-18 season with a contemplative and immersive showing of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train,” a play that highlights the ugliest aspects of prison life and most authentic manifestations of human nature.
Following the impassioned shooting of a religious cult leader, Angel Cruz, played by Luis Alberto Gonzalez, finds himself staring down the barrel of a first degree murder charge and a near permanent guarantee that he’ll be removed from the free world.
Bewildered by what lies ahead, his public defender, Mary Jane Hanrahan (Teresa Castracane) attempts to reconstruct Angel’s account of the shooting to help get him off scot-free. Though as Angel toils away in holding, he encounters another inmate – mass murderer Lucius Jenkins (Frank Britton) – whose newfound connection with God gives him a clarity he hadn’t previously had. Lucius’ faith is buttressed by a friendly correctional officer D’Amico (Robert Heinly) but a sudden reassignment leaves Lucius in constant interaction with a new, less accommodating guard named Valdez (Jose Guzman).
The first half of the play focuses on the character development of the major players, which was aided by 1st Stage’s choice to pare down the set to be a simple three-step stage and two props: a chair and handcuffs.
The audience learns of Angel’s immaturity and struggle to cope with the consequences of his actions. As expected for anyone thrown into jail, he’s terrified and delusionally defensive of his innocence. The murder was more due to medical malpractice to him — he’s no killer. Mary Jane is all too willing to take him up on that even though she faces an uphill battle in court. Luckily for Angel, she’s endeared to him because she sees her father’s own twisted sense of justice in his character and has an insatiable thirst for hubris. It’s why she turns down a plea deal and takes the case to trial.
Lucius’ own bond with God becomes tested once Valdez enters his life. While D’Amico supported Lucius’ attempt to reform himself, Valdez’s very existence makes the audience’s skin crawl. He picks the scab that is Lucius’ murderous past which earned him the name, “the Black Plague,” and his eventual execution.
It’s the role of religion and the debate of how significant it should be in our lives that was the play’s most interesting element. Lucius and Angel engage in an ongoing mental chess match during their daily hour of recreation over the relevance of God’s place in a person’s life and how seriously the idea of a higher power is to be taken.
For Lucius, God is all he ever needed and he wishes he would’ve had the awareness of God’s importance sooner. Earlier devotion to faith might’ve spared the people he heinously murdered and satiated his own sadness. Angel felt religion was a veil to hide corruption behind. His friend, Joe, had been tainted by the teachings of Reverend Kim, the man he later murdered, and he failed to see any integrity or worth in an ideology that was often conveniently contradicted by its proponents.
The two never finish their discussion, but come to the same conclusion naturally. After Angel ruins his chance of an acquittal the play ends with him pleading to God. The scene indicates that it is those without another avenue — in Angel’s case, freedom — who will seek comfort in religious belief to calm their uneasy mind and add meaning to their existence, just as Lucius did before him.
1st Stage’s unique interpretation of this modern classic combined with the establishment’s innately intimate space allows audience members to hone in on the theatrical elements while incorporating comedic touches to make the heavy-handed material more palatable. It is highly recommended for anyone who wants a thoughtful look into their own life’s beliefs or rationales.