Regional Reviews: San Francisco
A Riveting and Stimulating Production of Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train
This incredible play has been making the rounds, playing the Edinburgh Fridge Festival, the West End, Off-Broadway among other places. This powerful production which director Bill English is helming is fast and furious, strident and hard edged. It is "in your face" theatre at its best.
The intense drama takes place on New York's notorious Rikers Island and involves a juxtaposing of two men in protective custody. Angel (Daveed Diggs) is an intelligent young Puerto Rican who has shot a Korean religious cult leader in the ass for abducting his very close friend into the spiritual cult. The cult leader mysteriously dies in the operating theater of the hospital and now the young first timer is up for murder. His sympathetic lawyer Mary Jane Hanrahan (Susi Damilano) has an excellent plan to get the jury to be very compassionate for this young man. He merely has to tell a couple of lies and he can be exonerated.
Lucius (Carl Lumbly), an articulate serial killer who has found God, is Angel's next door cellmate. Each day they are allowed to leave their individual cells for one hour to enjoy the outdoors, and Lucius tries to indoctrinate the young man to become a born again Christian. Lucius has killed eight people, including a teenaged boy, and is facing the gas chamber in Florida where the killing took place. The playwright puts forward the idea that this killer's faith will maintain him against a vicious penal system and his fear of the upcoming execution.
Stephen Adly Guirgis takes elements from many television crime dramas such as "Law and Order" and the old "LA Law." He attempts, through some vivid theological debates that go on between the prisoners, to show the motivations behind the prisoners' actions and how society and their background has affected their attitudes in life. Particularly effective is Angel's description of when he was a young boy and he and his friend were walking on the tracks in the dark tunnels of a New York subway and they were saved from an oncoming train. It was "as if Jesus hopped the 'A' train" and saved their lives.
Angel's verbal slugging match with his Irish-American attorney who has come up the hard way is brilliant. The confrontations between Lucius and Angel are powerful as Lucius tries to get the young man to admit his guilt and "become a man who can receive redemption through God." This is a tense two hour and fifteen minute drama with outstanding acting by all five actors.
Carl Lumbly (veteran of stage and screen with reoccurring roles on "The West Wing," "Alias," "Cagney & Lacey" and "The X-Files") gives a wonderful intense performance as Lucius. It's an arduous effort as much for the audience as for Mr. Lumbly himself. His performance is mesmerizing. Daveed Diggs (Freddie in Moving Along and Caliban in Cal Shakes' The Tempest) is fantastic as the gifted Puerto Rican Angel. He finds a an emotional depth in Angel. The confrontation between these two is blazing hot.
Susi Damilano (tied for Best Actress for 2006 from the SFBATCC for Reckless) gives a precise performance as the simpatico attorney. Her monologues to the audience on her upbringing in an Irish-American household are beautifully rendered. Gabriel Martin (Our Lady of 121st Street, Tuesdays with Morrie plus many roles in regional theatre) is incredible as the sadistic guard Valdez. He first enters the stage without saying a word, and his look and manner let the audience know that the two prisoners are in for rough time with this "law abiding" person. He is a scary Valdez. Joe Madero (Pomp and Circumstances, Our Lady of 121st Street) is excellent in his small role of the kindly guard at the beginning of the drama. He has a great, effective monologue at the end about the death of Lucius that is sublime.
Bill English has not only obtained terrific performances from his actors but he has designed a wonderful set of two separate cages across a barren prison yard. You get the feeling you are seeing an actual prison yard within the small space of the stage. Chris Houston's sound effects are relentlessly pounding as you hear prison doors closing, which casts a spellbinding effect on the whole drama. Lighting by Joe Tracy is bright and brilliant as the two prisoners enjoy their one hour of freedom from their locked ceils.
Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train plays through April 21st at the SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter St, San Francisco. For tickets, call 415-677-9596, or visit www.sfplayhouse.org, TicketWeb.com or the TIX box office on Union Square. Their next production will be the world premiere of Aaron Loeb's First Person Shooter.