Thursday, May 6, 2004

For those of us on the outside, prison dramas rarely fail to hold us captive. The clang of metal bars, the powder-keg emotion, the numbing routine, the rock-salty language can get our adrenaline surging like Old Sparky.

“Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train” is no exception. Stephen Adly Guirgis’ stark and funny examination of the judicial system delivers the visceral thrills we expect in prison dramas. And not since David Mamet’s heyday has there been such a lively and peppery use of the “f-bomb.” Just when you thought you’d heard every combination possible in “The Sopranos” and “Oz,” along comes “Jesus Hopped” with an opening sequence featuring the profanity in configurations that had even the most staid of audience members shrieking with laughter.

Round House’s production, directed by Jose Carrasquillo with harsh bravado, could have been just another evocation of life behind bars. The play contains the staples of prison dramas — sadistic guards (Mando Alvarado), crusty and burned-out lawyers (Jane Beard), psychopathic inmates (Michael Anthony Williams), and “newbie” convicts (Michael Ray Escamilla) who soon become hardened by the system — and turns these conventions on their ears.

Yet, in its rattling tin-cup heart, “Jesus Hopped” is about faith. It speaks searchingly of what makes a man good or bad, whether redemption is possible and necessary, and the urgency of prayer.

“Jesus Hopped” centers on Angel Cruz (Mr. Escamilla), a questing young man out to right a wrong but who lands instead in a New York penitentiary. In an effort to rescue his best friend from a brainwashing religious cult, Angel shoots the sect’s leader in the derriere. The man dies — and Angel is convicted of first-degree murder. His lawyer, Mary Jane Hanrahan (Miss Beard) finds her passion for law reawakened by Angel’s plight, as she puts her career on the line coming up with creative (some might say, unethical) ways to set him free.

Locked up in protective custody, Angel’s only company is Lucius Jenkins (Mr. Williams), an infamous serial killer awaiting extradition to Florida. A more cordial psychopath you’re unlikely to meet, as Lucius is sunny, upbeat and energized by the Spirit. In prison, Lucius has embraced Christianity with a passion once reserved for killing.

During their exercise hour, Angel and Lucius engage in severe discussions about religion and prayer. At first, Angel feels superior because he accidentally killed one man, while Lucius cold-bloodedly slew eight.

But those feelings erode as Lucius challenges him — and the audience — to consider that even the most grisly sinner cannot only be saved, but is worth saving.

“Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train” tackles such issues as responsibility and religion with compassion and bottomless humor, the play’s bobbing and weaving rhythm giving it a pugilistic energy. There is nothing remotely preachy or didactic, as Mr. Guirgis provides no easy answers, no pat way out of the moral dilemmas.

Instead he provides us with the story of a man who thinks he is just in way over his head in the judicial system, only to find himself swamped by a crisis of faith. Angel’s redemption is heartbreaking and hard-won, because in it lingers the question: Is it too little, too late?

The production is further elevated by outstanding performances in the lead roles. Mr. Williams contributes a joltingly jaunty and athletic performance as Lucius, spouting hip-hop rhymes and Bible verses with equal staccato power. It sounds like a cliche to say that Lucius never lived so fully as he does in protective custody, but Mr. Williams gives the character such electrifying vitality that even the cliche is renewed.

His foil is Mr. Escamilla as the wounded, idealistic Angel. He is made up of knotty questions and roiling ambiguity. Yet Mr. Escamilla takes us beyond Angel’s futility to show us the passions, the daydreams, the humor and the aching potential of the character.

As the fried but still game lawyer, Miss Beard shows a deft touch with a character that could have been just a tough cookie. Bill Gillett brings a sense of tenderness and awe to the role of a humane guard who undergoes a transformation of his own for having known Lucius.

The profane language, depiction of the grim realities of prison life, and the blood-bloom intensity of the imagery, makes “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train” a difficult ride. Its rewards lie in the searing performances and the robust fire of Mr. Guirgis’ language.


WHAT: “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train” by Stephen Adly Guirgis

WHERE: Round House Theatre Silver Spring, 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays. Through May 30.

TICKETS: $29 to $39

PHONE: 240/644-1100


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