BWW Review: JESUS HOPPED THE 'A' TRAIN at The Young Centre for the Performing Arts
The law gives incarcerated people the right to one hour a day outside. That's one hour to soak up the sunlight, light up a smoke, and have a chat with anyone who's willing to listen. It is court-mandated humanity - a brief, bearable moment in an otherwise unbearable day.
JESUS HOPPED THE 'A' TRAIN is set on Riker's Island, and most of the scenes take place during this moment. This is the moment when inmates Lucius Jenkins (Daren A. Herbert) and Angel Cruz (Xavier Lopez) first meet. They are very different men accused of very different crimes, but they are connected, superficially, by the criminal justice system, and profoundly, by their mutual desire to make sense of themselves and their actions.
Lucius is an exuberant, charismatic serial killer who claims to have found God while incarcerated. His exact religious philosophy is unclear - he preaches justice but cannot account for his own atrocities.
Angel was arrested for shooting the leader of a dangerous religious cult. He doesn't think he's done anything wrong, but he lacks Lucius' energy and confidence; whereas Lucius can convince himself - and others - that God loves all sinners, Angel is plagued by doubts, first in the competence of his attorney (Diana Donnelly), and, eventually, in himself.
Playright Stephen Adly Guirgis (whose most recent show, Between Riverside and Crazy, was a smash hit at the Coal Mine Theatre in 2019) is a master of moral paradox. He begins with an unjust world, a problem to which there is no solution, and forces his characters to try to find one anyway. Is the victim of severe abuse morally responsible for his actions? Is it wrong to take justice into your own hands when the law fails? There is no right answer, but the tension in seeking one makes for searingly insightful dialogue.
Each of his characters, likewise, is appealing and appealing in equal measure. They lie in pursuit of the truth, kill for their friends, stick to their principles no matter what the world or the law says.
The result is a show that is irresistible and unnerving. You sit with your body on the edge of the seat and your fingers white-knuckled against the armrest.
Daren A. Herbert as Lucius is so charismatic, so ruthless, so fearful, and so goddamn powerful that it's hard to believe the role wasn't written for him. I'll admit to bitterly hating Tony Nappo as the abusive guard Valdez, which surely means he did a great job.
Ken MacKenzie's sparse set leaves space for the actors to work but effectively evokes their hopeless confinement. Kevin Lamotte's lighting creates a sense of time in a place neglected by the rest of the natural world.
Director Weyni Mengesha, who's led a thus-far flawless season as Soulpepper's artistic director, has, in JESUS HOPPED THE 'A' TRAIN, succeeded in building a world that is brutal and charming, real and fantastic, impossible to situate on any moral scale.
Soulpepper's JESUS HOPPED THE 'A' TRAIN runs through 23 February at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane, Toronto.
For more information or to buy tickets, click here.
Photo credit: Dahlia Katz