What makes a "good" person? When is a horrific crime such as murder justified? Where does redemption come from and for whom? These questions and more are posed in the riveting second offering from fledgling theater company Azeotrope with their production of "Jesus Hopped the A Train" currently running at ACT. A heavy play to be sure but deftly delivered from a company that is quickly becoming one to watch.
Angel Cruz (Richard Nguyen Sloniker) is a young guy who made a passionate mistake when he shot a religious cult leader to which he lost his best friend. Lucius Jenkins (Dumi) is a serial killer who has found God during his incarceration and is awaiting extradition to Florida and death row. The two men develop a friendship during their lone hour outside per day and engage in a philosophical discussion with each proclaiming innocence due to a higher calling than the judicial system. Meanwhile Angel is prepped for his trial by his attorney Mary Jane Hanharan (Angela DiMarco) who is willing to bend a few rules to set Angel free. And both men are tormented by the sadistic guard Valdez (Ray Tagavilla) who sees himself far above the likes of these Rikers inmates.
Author Stephen Adly Guirgis' play delivers a stark look at the gray area or morality wrapped in a world few of us will hopefully ever see. And Director Desdemona Chiang has put together a cast and production that at times blinds the audience with that reality but also keeps it safely behind those prison walls.
Sloniker is nothing short of spectacular in the role as he transforms himself into a tough street kid just looking to help his friend. I've seen Sloniker in a few very different roles now and he continues to impress me with his versatility and ability to disappear into the character. Dumi provides the perfect counterpoint to Sloniker's scared newcomer while both stay true to their own beliefs in their redemption. And Dumi's arc throughout the play is subtle and superb. DiMarco lends an air of kind vulnerability to the tough and driven public defender and has her own incredible arc in the story. Tagavilla manages a performance that is equal parts enthralling and appalling as the guard on the right side of the law but the wrong side of humanity. And I must mention Patrick Allcorn as the nicer guard Charlie D'Amico who befriends Lucius. He may not have as big of a role in the show but what he did have he ran with and turned in a lovely portrayal of a kind man in a harsh world. But then, the entire ensemble inhabits this harsh world as if they were born into it and show what a truly tight ensemble can do.
With a gorgeously simple yet ingenious set by Deanna Zibello, stunning sound design from Jay Weinland and original music from Christian "Lil Kriz" Beeber, outstanding lights from Jessica Trundy and wonderful costumes from Kimberly Newton, they have managed to construct a spot on view into this gritty world. And the entire cast and crew have shown that a small, independent theater company can put on shows just as good if not better than the bigger groups in town. Now this show may not be for everyone as it drops more F-bombs in the opening scene than an entire Mamet festival but if you aren't put off by that then you need to catch this production before it meets its own untimely end.
"Jesus Hopped the A Train" from Azeotrope performs at ACT through June 30th. For tickets or information contact the ACT box office at 206-292-7676 or visit them online at www.acttheatre.org.
Photo credits: Jessica Martin