BWW Review: JESUS HOPPED THE 'A' TRAIN is Worth Catching at 1st Stage
Do you believe in God? What makes a person evil or good? In 1st Stage's production of Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train, Angel Cruz (Luis Alberto Gonzalez), a man convicted of attempted murder, and Lucius Jenkins, a serial killer, (Frank Britton) converse about these questions among many others while they are awaiting their fates in Rikers Island Prison. Not only does the play explore faith and religion, but it also tackles prominent issues within the criminal justice system. Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train, directed by Alex Levy and Juan Francisco Villa, is intense and timely, but there are certain aspects of this production that leave it less effective than it could be.
1st Stage's Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train is set as a theatre-in-the-round. While this allows the audience to be closer to the actors, but it is a little claustrophobic. Despite the restraints of space, the cast moves with ease off and on the small platform stage without missing a beat. There is an advantage to being closer to the actors especially during parts in which a single actor comes on stage to tell a story. A prime example of this would be when Teresa Castracane, who plays Cruz's attorney, Mary Jane Hanrahan, tells a story about her father attending a fancy dance with her. The set-up of theatre-in-the-round assists with the intensity of the production, but the cast didn't need the extra help as their performances fueled it. Standout performances include Teresa Castracane as Mary Jane Hanrahan, Frank Britton as Lucius Jenkins, and Luis Alberto Gonzalez as Angel Cruz. The best scenes are ones in which a combination of these actors is on stage. Gonzalez and Britton's scenes are interesting to watch interact with each other especially in a scene in which Lucius and Angel talk about Angel's faith. It isn't always the conservations about faith and religion between these characters that are perplexing. It is the brief snippets of conservation that touch on the criminal justice system. One scene in particular, Mary Jane mentions that mix-ups happen in prison. Where the first act feels like an intense, satisfying marathon, the second act is quite different.
Under no fault of the actors, the intensity from the second half seems to die off. This is perhaps due to the playwright's pacing in the second act, as well as, a break for intermission that fizzles the tension. In the case of a production like this, it is best to continue to move on without an intermission to continue the emotional trajectory. The lighting design, by Brittany Shemuga, is simple, but superb. Throughout the production, one can tell whether the actors are indoors or outdoors. The lighting also extenuates the actors' lines especially in one instance in which a character is describing his experience of seeing the light of the 'A' train. Where the lighting shines, the scene transitions jolt. Abrupt transitions between scenes feature loud rock music which doesn't seem to fit the aesthetic of the play.
The play itself, written by Stephen Adly Guirgis, is relevant to today, but it is overwhelming. The themes of Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train are too many, which is part of the play's problem, and clearly not focused. The audience is essentially spoon fed many things such as the death penalty, good vs. evil, and religion. These themes could have been dealt with in a different matter in order to allow the audience to think and speculate more.
Despite the flaws of the script and tiny production hiccups, 1st Stage's production of Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train is a worth catching.
Running time: 2 hours with a 15 minute intermission
Photo caption and credit: (L-R) Luis Alberto Gonzalez, Teresa Castracane, and Frank Britton in "Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train" at 1st Stage. The show runs through October 8, 2017 in Tysons Corner. Photo by Teresa Wood.
1st Stage's Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train runs until October 8, 2017.