Redemption is hard to find in prison, especially when the charge is murder, and the potential sentence is life. Set primarily in the protective custody ward of Rikers Island Prison, New York City, Stephen Adly Guirgis’s highly-acclaimed play Jesus Hopped The ‘A’ Train takes the viewer on a profanity-filled journey to explore the nature of judicial consequence in two acts. Guirgis is a Pulitzer-winning playwright and former Violence Prevention Specialist and HIV Educator. Philip Seymour Hoffman directed the original off-Broadway production in 2000, and director Weyni Mengesha now picks up that mantle to deliver a triumphant portrayal of just how low desperation can take a human soul.
The plot follows anger-ridden Angel Cruz (Xavier Lopez) as he struggles to navigate his new home of concrete and steel, with the compassionate and at times detrimental aid of lawyer Mary Jane Hanrahan (Diana Donnelly); the unrestrained sermonizing of cellmate Lucius Jenkins (Daren A. Herbert); and the inhumane brutality of Officer Valdez (Tony Nappo). Tropes are heavy in all these relationships, but the resulting dialogue is honest, realistic and impactful. Here, trauma and tragedy are unified by absurdity and moments of great hilarity. Existential dread is combated by faith and righteousness, altogether building with pathetic momentum to induce a hard-hitting vortex of intrapersonal destruction.
Every one of the five actors hits their mark and I could not be more impressed with the accuracy of the accents and the sincerity of their performances. However, it should be noted that Daren A. Herbert is the shining star that elevates this production above and beyond the status quo that Soulpepper has achieved in recent years. Xavier Lopez is also a tour de force, although his character does not possess the poetic talents of his righteous cellmate.
Ken MacKenzie’s set design is an austere and brutally symmetrical lattice of metal piping that combines with John Gzowski’s sound design to deliver the viewer straight to the center of the prison, and traps us there for the duration of the narrative, as the other characters come and go with happenstance and vague necessity. We and they are spectators in the sport of societal retribution, provided with medieval vigor by the American system of corrections.
I noticed that several couples did not return after the intermission, which stands as a reminder that this play is not a picnic, nor is it intended for the faint of heart. Intense and profane are the spirits at work; their consumption should be undertaken with liberal faculty.