Stage: Wednesday May 23, 2002
Cheap Fare

‘Jesus Hopped the “A” Train’ looks bad but feels good at Fort Worth Theatre.


The passionate drama Jesus Hopped the “A” Train, written by the awkwardly christened Stephen Adly Guirgis, is currently being performed in places from England to California. But what more appropriate locale than Texas — widely regarded as the death-penalty capital of the world — to stage this tense philosophical meditation on guilt and the freshly saved souls of those who “live” on death row. Fort Worth Theatre and director Steve Garrett present a crudely designed but effective area premiere that’s bound to get people talking — if not downright fighting — on their ways out of the theater.

But don’t come expecting a Crossfire-style series of bickering heads. It’s difficult to discern how playwright Guirgis even feels about capital punishment, mostly because the two killers portrayed here have been dropped into weightier moral and spiritual conundrums than that of merely facing the gurney-and-needle. Angel (David Torres) is a new arrival to Riker’s Island in New York, having impulsively shot a religious cult leader who he believed “stole” his best friend. After the guru later dies in the hospital, Angel reluctantly accepts the defense provided by an Irish-Italian lawyer named Mary Jane (an earnest if unconvincing Leslie Ann Perez-Solis). Meanwhile, fellow inmate Lucius (Djemal Burris) is a self-styled preacher whose attorneys are fighting his extradition to Florida, where he will be executed. He’s frantically trying to save souls, including Angel’s, after having sent eight of them to the great hereafter on a serial killing spree. He’s found Jesus, and he wants others to experience the joy of earthly burdens lifted. The question of Lucius’ spiritual sincerity — and the internal conflict of Angel’s spiritual doubts — are at the core of the play.

It would be an understatement to say that Fort Worth Theatre’s production was done on a shoestring. A thread from an unraveling rug is more like it. Few small companies have the funds for great scenic detail, but this Jesus has been crammed into a small side room of Orchestra Hall, where the stage consists of three black-painted platforms, three chairs, and a table that folds. This is the producers’ attempt at creating a so-called black-box space. Too bad they can’t pull it off. Black boxes are supposed to both isolate and highlight the actors; here, it makes them look like a couple of worker bees hanging out at the office. Even Kevin Harkins’ costumes merely suggest prisoner jumpsuits and guard uniforms; they’re too bland. And Seth Johnston’s lighting is a harsh, undifferentiated glare that might be intended to suggest unforgiving prison life but unintentionally terrorizes the actors, who squint through some of the scenes.

The bantering in this script is fast, hot, and pointed. There’s a lot of profanity, but there’s also a nuanced intelligence at work — Guirgis exhibits a facility for ambivalence and irony, and can draw unexpected parallels and contrasts from characters of very different backgrounds. An act of violence from Mary Jane’s adolescence leads her to take an unhealthy interest in Angel’s crime, while Lucius, who introduces himself to new inmates with the offer of a cigarette, abruptly quits smoking as his extradition to Florida draws nearer. (“Those things’ll kill ya.”)

As the serial killer being courted by the national press for his vicious crimes, Djemal Burris gives the show’s most admirable performance, slowly lifting the veil of jaunty charisma and religious conviction to reveal the sociopath inside. His Christian conversion hasn’t quite led him to feel remorse for his killings. Since, hey, we’re all sinners in the eyes of a loving God, his beliefs only seem to give him what Angel calls “God insurance.” Burris fits his prison shoes valiantly. David Torres as Angel is almost as good, and in some ways has the trickier part — he’s expected to wrestle onstage with whether or not he can become a believer, a tougher dilemma to convey than a jive-talking proselytizer’s mission. His final tragicomic attempt at prayer (“Our father who art in heaven, Harold be thy name”) is heartbreaking.

One could argue that Jesus Hopped the “A” Train is vaguely anti-death penalty, but that’s mostly because Lucius and Angel are vividly realized human beings with whom the audience can empathize (at least sometimes). The playwright hasn’t modeled his script on a Clifford Odets-style social statement; he’s more interested in the myriad ways death makes us fool ourselves. Mortality makes everyone a hypocrite, he seems to say, because most of us create elaborate psychological methods to help us believe we can escape it. But it’s also the great equalizer: We’re all going Somewhere sooner or later. Jesus Hopped the “A” Train makes clear that justice and vengeance are difficult, if not impossible, concepts to untangle. Surely both sides of the death penalty debate can agree on that.

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