The chain-link, steely-gray grimness of topnotch director Bill English’s scenic design, the echoey murmurs and shouts of the incarcerated, the magnified clank of prison doors — all this immediately assures us that we’re in good hands. And indeed, the SF Playhouse production of "Jesus Hopped the `A’ Train," Stephen Adly Guirgis’ 2001 Off-Broadway prison drama, is so well acted and tightly directed that it’s deliciously intense from start to finish.
We first meet Angel Cruz on his knees, struggling to remember the Lord’s Prayer. Defiant and seemingly unrepentant, he’s in the lockdown wing of Riker’s Island for shooting Reverend Kim in the butt; the cult leader had brainwashed Angel’s best friend. When Kim dies on the operating table, Angel’s future is on the line.
In a separate cage across the prison yard Angel meets serial killer and born-again Christian Lucius Jenkins. Jogging in place and tossing him cigarettes, Lucius appears to be Angel’s only friend. A sadistic guard, tormented by the violent acts he’s seen, in turn torments the two prisoners. And Angel is represented by a public defender who’s drawn to his case by inner conflicts of her own.
Played out in a series of punchy scenes of just the right length, and punctuated by sound designer Chris Houston’s insistently pounding and pulsating effects, the play is a riveting and wonderfully theatrical study of the eternal, and ambiguous, power of religious faith.
A buff and dread-locked Carl Lumbly as Lucius, and Afro-headed Daveed Diggs as the younger and more vulnerable Angel, find whole inner worlds of variety and depth in their characters. They’re so perfectly cast, and so in sync, that the atmosphere in the small theater feels palpably dangerous.
Equally strong in smaller roles are Susi Damilano as the troubled lawyer; Gabriel Marin as the hard-hearted guard; and Joe Madero, providing intriguing contrast as another, more amiable guard.
My few quibbles concern the script: The lawyer, while essential to the plot, is too fully drawn — an odd criticism indeed, and one I’ve never made before, but her personal issues and inner turmoil are murky and contrived. Also, the tough guard’s emotional arc throughout the course of the play is too vaguely defined by the playwright.
SF Playhouse triumphed last season with another Guirgis play, "Our Lady of 121st Street." This looks to be one more hit for the intrepid company.
Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train
Where: SF Playhouse, 588 Sutter St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, closes April 21
Contact: (415) 677-9596 or www.sfplayhouse.org