There are times in the theater when the particulars of a play—its people, place, and poetics—pull you in as only an arresting, well-told story can. But then something even more interesting begins to happen. The writer and performers sweep you into a zone of moral meaning so far-reaching that one’s whole universe of values gets a rethink. Like an epic tempest of ethical questions that leaves one’s conscience reeling and, for the moment, unmoored. Such is what transpires during the breathtaking, extraordinarily original production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train at 1st Stage.
The setting is a prison; the characters are two prisoners, two guards, and a public defender; the story lines are about criminal trials, conviction, sentencing, incarceration. But curiously this isn’t actually a play about prison, at least not in the real world sense. It seems so at first, but as Stephen Adly Guirgis’s riveting drama unfolds, it becomes far more universal than its specifics would suggest: It becomes an electrifying contest among competing moral frameworks that make incompatible claims about personal culpability for wrongdoing.
Which is more like what great Greek tragedies do than what contemporary naturalistic plays do, right?
Directors Alex Levy and Juan Francisco Villa display a profound grasp of this classical dimension of the play. They stage the work in the round, so that the actors are never seen against or inside a set. but rather are at all times surrounded by the spectator-hearers who are evaluating their characters’ speeches and actions. The play is full of monologues that function to articulate each character’s values, very much like back in Sophocles’ day, and the directors’ decision to stage the play in the round magnifies the standing and authority of each such magnificent speech.
In a brilliant stroke, Levy and Villa begin the play with a wordless choreographed prologue that is not in the script. As the audience enters, the central character, Angel Cruz (an intense and anguished Luis Alberto Gonzalez) is inside a cage made of prison bars hardly a yard square. At rise the other four actors enter not yet in character and circle the stage like a chorus. Then one by one these actors each remove one of the four barred walls, releasing the prisoner from his cage and the whole production from any pretense of lockup literalism. It is the first of many illuminating astonishments to come.
Twenty-eight-year-old Angel, we learn, was arrested three days ago for shooting Reverend Kim, a cult leader, “in his ass.” Angel was enraged because the Rev converted and inculcated Angel’s pal Joey, an action Angel regarded as stealing the friend he loved. Around this crime of passion and retaliation, Guirgis constructs a complex of ethical contradictions that by the end of the play leave us metaphorically enclosed in a conundrum.
“I just want to be good,” Angel says at one point. “I want to be a good man.” Search inside most everyone and the aspiration to be a good person is there somewhere. That is the problem but how? And if one does something wrong, what then? “I’m so so so so sorry,” Angel says a little later. Is confession good enough for the soul? What are the odds on atonement? What’s the deal with redemption? Is being a law-abiding citizen like carrying an exculpation card? By whose rules and what principles will one be judged? Are some wrongs exempt from censure because they serve a greater good?
Before we know it, Guirgis’s comedy drama has us dangling on the horns of these and more dilemmas.
Angel’s court-assigned attorney, Mary Jane Hanrahan (a tough, cool Teresa Castracane), is the play’s voice of situational ethics. “The law is a set of rules for every circumstance as if they’re all the same,” she says; “they’re not all the same.” From her father, Mary Jane learned a lesson that guides her lawyering with Angel. When she was a girl her father escorted her to a father-daughter dance, where he took umbrage at another father’s bigoted remark and stabbed the man with a fork. “It was just a fork,” Mary Jane recalls her father told her, which connects to Angel’s shooting the thieving cult leader’s behind: both instances of “trying to do a great right by doing a little wrong.” Mary Jane’s memory of what her father did clearly informs her determination to get Angel acquitted. “He made a foolish, perilous choice but it was a statement,” she says. “I find honor in that.”
One of the play’s funniest and most trenchant scenes is between Castracane and Gonzales when Mary Jane coaches Angel how to testify at trial. She needs to teach him how to lie. “Tell me a smart lie,” she says. “A good lie is based on truth.” Her game plan is to go for jury nullification—so they’ll sympathize with Angel and let him off despite what the law says. In Mary Jane’s moral frame, what’s right is not always what’s legal, and she tries to win Angel over to that view.
Another character trying to win Angel over is Lucius Jenkins (a suave and savvy Frank Britton). Lucius has been convicted of eight sadistic murders and is awaiting extradition to Florida where he’s to be executed. But Lucius has seen the light of the Lord. A zealous convert to Christ as Redeemer, he preaches a gospel of faith and redemption. “Deliver me from evil, Lord. Thy will be done,” he says. “Deliver me from me, Lord.” Lucius has had a rough life. He was abused and sodomized as a boy, turned to drugs and alcohol as a result. But Angel is appalled at Lucius’s remorseless, self-interested sanctimony and wants none of it. And the tug of war for Angel’s life and liberty between Mary Jane and Lucius—between, more universally, secular humanism and sacred absolution—is a primary driver of the drama’s galvanizing effect.
The two prison guards are positioned as good cop/bad cop incarnate.
Good cop is D’Amico (a warm and sturdy Robert Heinly), who exemplifies kind-hearted compassion. He brings Lucius Oreo cookies and cigarettes; his wife baked Lucius a shepherd’s pie; D’Amico and Lucius share a buddylike badinage. Lucius’s criminal past doesn’t faze D’Amico: “All I know about Lucius Jenkins is that I liked him.”
Bad cop is Valdez (a wired and snarky Jose Guzman), who represents by-the-book adherence to the law. “I do not like infractions,” he warns Angel. “There will be no more infractions.” Valdez doesn’t buy Lucius’s salvation story either: “If there is a god, do you honestly believe you are free from the burden of what you’ve done?” Sanctimonious in his own way, Valdez says: “I’m a good man because I choose to be. End of story.” Yet the malice in Valdez’s upbraiding of his prisoners and the savagery in Lucian’s murder of his victims fall on the same sadism spectrum.
The 1st Stage production of Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train is an exhilarating immersion in values at odds—in many ways the moral muddle and ethical disconnects that have got this country where it is today. To say the show is head-spinning would be insufficient. To say it combusts is an understatement.
Running Time: Two hours 30 minutes, including one intermission.