By Stephen Adly Guirgis
Directed by Peter Evans
With Kate Cole, Vincent Miller, Richard Cawthorne & Kenneth Ransom
Set and Costume by Christine Smith
Lighting by Dans Sheehan
GREEN ROOM AWARD NOMINATION: BEST ACTOR (Kenneth Ransom)
Jesus Hopped the A Train (May 7 – June 1, 2003) –Helen Thompson, The Age 13-May-03
Red Stitch Actors Theatre has quickly won fans for its bold programming and hard work. Jesus Hopped the “A” Train is another in the series of contemporary, mainly American, hard-hitting plays that the ensemble has made its specialty. Melbourne theatregoers are unlikely to see such plays anywhere else.
Non-mainstream, American theatre has a role in uncovering powerful issues seething beneath the surface of the world’s largest democracy. Jesus Hopped the “A” Train is a prison play, one that reveals the monstrous power of a legal system that jails millions of citizens.
Set in New York’s Riker Island prison for the worst of criminals, its subject is not just violence, but the paradoxical power of Christian belief in this context.
Two men, in adjoining cages, face punishment for murder. Lucius Jackson (Kenneth Ransom) has killed eight people, apparently without motive, but has found God in jail. Angel (Vince Miller) has shot a corrupt, religious leader who brainwashed and captured a friend. Mary Jane (Kate Cole) is his lawyer. Valdez (Richard Cawthorne) is a self-righteous prison guard with a vicious streak, while another guard (Dion Mills) has been sacked for too-sympathetic treatment of Lucius.
Angel’s worst fear is a life sentence, but it is Lucius’s best hope, the alternative being extradition to Florida and the death penalty. Mary Jane gambles her own career and Angel’s fate on a long shot in the courtroom. The outcome is tragic for all of them.
What makes the play absolutely gripping is not only the plot and the suspense that hangs over everything, but the philosophical and religious beliefs that are fiercely contested and imbue the whole work with tragic irony. The Christian belief that sustains the serial killer is the reason for the incarceration of Angel, and it eventually causes his downfall.
Miller gives a moving, intense and convincing performance as Angel, revealing beneath the tough-talking bravado the character’s inherent decency – or is it weakness? – that will make him a victim of both religious proselytising and a brutal legal system.
But it is Ransom’s night. He is superb as Lucius; his portrayal of a character whose deeds are almost beyond comprehending is rich with irony, warmth, zealotry and conviction. It is a compelling, complex performance that could hardly be bettered.
Cole is tough and tragic as Mary Jane; Mills provides another facet of American character as the guard; and Cawthorne makes Valdez’s moral certainty absolutely chilling. Altogether it is another fine production from Red Stitch.
Bill Perrett, The Sunday Age 18/05/2003
Richard Cawthorne and Kenneth Ransom in Jesus Hopped the A Train. Picture: Jodie Hutchinson.
Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train (May 7 – June 1, 2003) by Stephen Adly Guirgis. Directed by Peter Evans.
An import from New York, Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Jesus Hopped the A Train makes the transition to St Kilda with creditable success. It focuses on two inmates of Riker’s Island high-security prison, who are allowed an hour’s exercise each day on the roof of the prison in cages. One is Angel (Vince Miller), a young Hispanic man who has been charged, in the first instance, with the attempted murder of a corrupt religious cult leader whom he has shot “in the ass” because he believes he has stolen one of his friends. The other is Lucius (Kenneth Ransom), a black man convicted of eight serial murders, currently fighting a death sentence for his crimes.
Angel’s public defence lawyer, Mary-Jane (Kate Cole), decides, after a difficult beginning, to do whatever it takes to have her client acquitted. Lucius is more interested in converting Angel to the religious belief he has adopted in prison.
Jesus Hopped the A Train relies primarily for its effects on language. The action is, unsurprisingly, constricted to the two cages and an interview room. Ransom’s Lucius does have a wonderful physical aspect – he exercises energetically while praying – but it is his non-stop razor-edged banter and philosophical disputation, his joy and skill in language use, that makes the character so remarkable.
Angel is no slouch either as a verbal combatant, but he has most often to defer to the older man. Their exchanges – about the existence and nature of God, about good and evil, freedom, karma, justice and fairness – are sharp, tense, often very funny, provocative and always entertaining.
Both actors deliver precise and rich performances. Cole is also impressive as the talented, once self-assured and now somewhat disillusioned lawyer. She provides a dry retrospective commentary on the action. Dion Mills is effective as the first of two guards overseeing the two inmates, a “good cop” who is dismissed for his sympathetic dealing with Lucius, and Richard Crawthorne’s Valdez, the replacement, makes a credible sadist, an effectual foil to Lucius’ humanity.
Jesus Hopped the A Train is a long play – over two hours including the interval – but Peter Evans’ direction never allows the pace to flag. The design by Christina Smith is suitably hard and spare. A satisfying and rewarding piece.