Writer: Stephen Adly Guirgis
Director: Kate Hewitt
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
Our first experience of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Jesus Hopped the A Train is of Angel Cruz, an incarcerated Latino man, desperately trying to remember the Lord’s Prayer (“Howard be thy name?”) while other unseen prisoners tell him in the earthiest of ways to shut up.
Many have taken from the play’s setting that this is a condemnation of the American judicial system. It’s not, really, although that subject does get caught by a sideswipe or two – most notably in the form of Joplin Sibtain’s needlessly vindictive prison guard Valdez.
But the real theme is also present in that opening scene – our fractious and fragmented connection to religious faith, and the act of confession.
Ukweli Roach’s Angel is in New York’s Riker’s Island prison while awaiting trial for shooting a minister as he attempted to rescue his best friend from what he considered a religious cult. Locked up for 23 hours a day, in his one hour of exercise time he is placed in an outside cage next to Oberon K A Adjepong’s Lucius Jenkins, a prisoner who seems to have found God.
Both men have taken life – Angel maybe unintentionally, Lucius less so: he is a serial killer awaiting extradition to Florida for execution. Their discussions about the moral imperative to take responsibility for their actions forms the backbone of Guirgis’ play.
Such discussions play out alongside Cruz’s conversations with Dervla Kirwan’s lawyer. Here, Cruz does take responsibility for what he has done, by telling her exactly what happened. But in the adversarial arena of the courtroom, that is exactly the wrong thing to do: she risks disbarment by trying to get a man acquitted, despite knowing facts she must withhold from the court.
Guirgis’ script – as deliciously and persistently humorous as it is penetrating and devastating – prevents the moral philosophy from ever getting dry, while director Kate Hewitt elicits captivating performances from the full cast, most notably Adjepong’s charismatic Lucius.
Magda Willi’s set, a brutalist traverse walkway, is broken up by four glass doors, intersecting the space between Angel and Lucius. In the theatrical lighting, those glass panes become half-mirrors: each man denying that they have too much in common with the other, but unable to avoid seeing their own reflection superimposed.
No such mirrors exist between us and the characters on stage. But such is the clarity of Hewitt’s revival, we see the reflections nonetheless.
Runs until March 30 2019 | Image: Johan Persson