Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Jesus Hopped the “A” Train was first produced in New York in 2000. Its portrait of a criminal justice system that is short on justice and long on system easily transferred to London’s Donmar Warehouse and earned the playwright an Olivier Award. Shamefully, the predicaments the piece explores have only gotten worse, making the revival at the Signature as timely and poignant as ever.
Guirgis has a flare for language and exploring characters not often seen in commercial theater. Similar to his recent Between Riverside and Crazy, the people we get to know in these two plus hours are trapped by circumstances. In this piece, the playwright is able to draw on his expertise in violence prevention, taking a deep dive into what makes a criminal and what makes a crime. He relies a little over-much on exposition, but even that is vivid and intense.
Those of you plugged into New York’s performing arts news may already know that *both* leads in this production had to be replaced: one for scheduling issues and the other for health reasons. Though this meant extended creative tinkering for the supporting actors and director Mark Brokaw, Sean Carvajal as Angel and Edi Gathegi as Lucius have taken control of their roles body and soul. The cast changes left SAG winner (for Desperate Housewives) Ricardo Chivira as the best known name in the lineup. His Valdez is a tad mustache-twirly, but helps focus some of the angrier energy.
When I lived in San Francisco, I volunteered at a residential program for former felons. I realize this makes me more likely to respond to the plight of bright creative people who make terrible decisions and are helped along that path by a lack of education, support and resources. Judging from the emotional reaction of audience members around me, these characters are so beautifully detailed, their situation will draw you in just because you are human.
Brokaw keeps the staging minimal, appropriate for the prison lock-down wing where most of the action takes place. His focus is on well-paced dialogue delivery and appropriate physicality. We deeply feel along with the characters as much as we hear their tales unfold. It is slightly painful, yet wondrous.
The simple set by Riccardo Hernandez conveys a sense of confinement, while still giving the actors sufficient room for expression and interaction. Prison garb by Dede M. Ayite has tiny touches of individuality. Lighting by Scott Zielinski and sound by M. L. Dogg hint at what’s beyond the walls we see.
Whether you are a social justice advocate or a fan of emotionally moving drama, Guirgis’s work has something important to say. Due to the delays caused by the recasting and resulting extra rehearsal days as well as to the enthusiastic response of the audience since the run’s relaunch, this production of Jesus Hopped the “A” Train has been extended through December 3. The ticket price has been bumped from the regular $30 to the still-reasonable $55. They are available on the Signature Theater website, http://www.signaturetheatre.org/shows-and-events/Productions/2017-2018/Jesus-Hopped-the-A-Train.aspx.