Glass City Theatre‘s production of “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train” at Pacific Theatre is not for the faint of heart. It is not for those of us whose enjoyment and appreciation of a show requires a happy ending. It is not for those of us who are comfortable in our assessment of the way the world and people work and do not want to be challenged. It is for those of us who are interested in a solid, uncompromising script, difficult themes, and unapologetic performances.
The play, written by Stephen Adly Guirgis and directed by Angela Konrad, takes place on Rikers Island, New York, where two men, one a convicted serial killer, the other on trial for a murder he doesn’t think was a crime, spend their days in solitary confinement. For one hour each day they are brought outside to separate cages to spend some time in the fresh air. Sometimes friends, sometimes enemies, the meat of this play can be found in the conversation and complicated relationship that builds between these two prisoners during their time together at Rikers. This particular production also boasts a simple, effective, and altogether stunning set and lighting design by Itai Erdal.
Not having been raised in a religious household, I occasionally find myself nervous when I attend performances at Pacific Theatre. I sometimes worry that perhaps the spiritual mandate of the company (which operates on the property of the Holy Trinity Anglican Church) will result in productions that exclude a non-religious viewer (like myself) or otherwise prevent my enjoyment of the work. So far this has not happened. Yes, religion is a central theme of the play. Lucius, the convicted serial killer, believes he has found God and tries to convince Angel, who is still pleading innocent for the murder of a cult leader, to do the same.
This plot could have easily alienated a viewer like me, but it did not. The strength of the script lies in its forever altering lines between black and white, right and wrong. Upon first appearance, Lucius is presented as a sympathetic character, even though we know he has murdered eight people. Angel is also presented as sympathetic, a victim of circumstances. And yet, as much as we begin to like these men, as much as one has found God and the other’s lawyer insists that he is innocent, the fact we must always contend with is that both have taken human life. Is there ever a good and moral reason to do so? Is an unspeakably horrible upbringing an excuse to cause so much pain to victims and their families? Can you ever reach a place, after you have done something wrong, where you can make it right and be forgiven, whether it be by God, or by society, or by yourself? Even if a jury were to find you innocent, if you have broken your own personal laws of right and wrong, what then?
While the entire cast is strong, Carl Kennedy (Lucius) and Robert Olguin (Angel) are electric together. There is such an overwhelming energy onstage it verges constantly on either giddiness or violence. The script can be very funny. And there is violence. But it is not the characters’ actions that are violent (they are prisoners), it is their words and their lives that are violent. I found myself on teetering on the edge of tears during the second act (I was not the only one), not because the acting or directing was “milking” a reaction out of me but because I simply couldn’t bear the strain of watching the struggle to make right out of something so horribly horribly wrong.
The play is a struggle. The characters struggle. Heroes, villains–everyone is both. “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train” shows us a world where nothing is completely saved, and yet, nothing is completely lost either. Much like ours. A constant struggle to find the right. What is the answer? I don’t know. Struggle struggle struggle.
I appreciate leaving the theatre with more questions than I had when I walked in. I appreciate the occasional challenge to my own moral compass, and the opportunity to put myself in the shoes of a person whose eyes I will hopefully never see through.
“Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train” runs until April 2 at Pacific Theatre. Tickets can be obtained at the Pacific Theatre Box Office through visiting their website or calling 604-731-5518.
Final notes: I received a comp ticket from the good-hearted Lois Dawson, all-around Super Vancouver Theatre Woman and author of the theatre blog Lois Backstage. She gave me a comp because she’s awesome. I was not asked by Pacific Theatre or Glass City Theatre to write a review of this production.