by Michele Markarian
“Jesus Hopped the A Train”. Written by Stephen Adly Guirgis. Directed by Dayanne C. Byron Walters and Daniel Boudreau. Presented by Praxis Stage at the Dorchester Art Project, 1486 Dorchester Avenue through May 21.
Walking into the tiny, bare bones space at 1486 Dorchester Avenue, where Praxis Stage is performing “Jesus Hopped the A Train”, I was immediately filled with a stab of homesickness for those theater spaces that used to thrive in Boston and Cambridge before the gentrification of theater prevailed – The Leland Center. The Piano Factory. Little Flags Theater. Without large budgets and grants, theater artists had to rely less on production values and more on sheer energy and talent – which this production has an abundance of.
Upon entering the space, one finds two prison guards, standing and pacing, sometimes menacingly. They create a tension before the show begins that never really abates. Angel Cruz (Danny Mourino) is in prison for the attempted murder of a cult leader who has managed to brainwash Angel’s best friend. Angel claims he didn’t mean to murder him – he just wanted to shoot him in the butt cheek. This particular aspect of Angel’s story strikes a chord with his court-appointed lawyer, Mary Jane (Dawn Davis). Despite knowing that he shot the cult leader, Mary Jane agrees to represent Angel and have him commit perjury on the stand. Angel’s only companion in prison, other than the sadistic prison guard Valdez (Harry Garo) is a gentle giant named Lucius Jenkins (Daniel Williams). Lucius is an extremely religious man, praying and praising God so much so that the other prison guard, the affable D’Amico (Daniel Boudreau) befriends him and is subsequently fired for it. Lucius has killed eight people, but as long as he’s praying, he’s good in the eyes of the Lord.
“Jesus Hopped the A Train” is a rich, complex kind of play that’s in the eyes of the beholder – who you are and what you bring to the table will depend on what you see in it. My husband and I, talking in the car on the way home – it will provoke conversation, believe me – both seemed to think it was about God, and how God is in the eyes of the beholder as well. Praxis seeks to do political theater, and what can be more political than God? Angel and Lucius, despite their differences, pray to God as if he were the Man, the person that can relieve them of their burden, absolve them of their crimes, take the responsibility out of their hands for the crimes they have committed. The deluded Lucius even defends his killings – one so gruesome I found it hard to listen to – by asking Angel, “If God didn’t mean for these people to be killed, then how would I have killed them?” Huh. If you think about it, he kind of has a point. And it’s not as if Lucius is not without his attributes– he has inspired D’Amico to shed a bad habit and start a new career. He also injects a conscience into the otherwise guiltless Angel. But Lucius had an abusive childhood and is an undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, so he has his limitations.
Yet what if God were the Gnostic Abraxas, containing both good and evil?
I could riff on this play all day, but there are some really fine performances to talk about. The relationship between Angel and Lucius anchors the play, and both actors who portray them are superb. Danny Mourino brings a vulnerable toughness to the role – he’s teary and pissed off at the same time. With a face of an El Greco saint, he reflects a world weariness and despair that try as he might, he can’t transcend. Daniel Williams, with his cherubic features, delivers a wonderfully nuanced performance, capturing both sides of Lucius: the cold-hearted, dispassionate killer, and the hopeful healer who just wants all of the people in his circle to get right with God. Dawn Davis, as the lawyer, Mary Jane, is excellent, objectively capturing – with emotion brimming just under the surface – the attorney’s struggle with hubris. Harry Garo’s malevolent Valdez, and even Daniel Boudreau’s kindly D’Amico, embody the superiority and self- importance of people given too much authority.
What’s stimulating about the play is that there’s nothing preachy or moral or didactic about it. So many different questions, so many different discussions. Go see it and we’ll talk. https://www.facebook.com/praxis.stage/