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GUT-WRENCHING RIDE PUTS THE SYSTEM ON TRIAL

The prison system is a living hell. It's the devil's recreation room, where pleasure is measured in pain and the end is justified by its means.

This is "Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train," Stephen Adly Guirgis's bitterly intense account of life on the inside. It's the tale of two men, one on his way in and one on his way out. And it's utterly bone-crushing in the hands of the New Phoenix Theatre Company.

Carmelo Lopez, a newcomer to professional theater, makes his stunning debut as Angel Cruz, a young New York City Latino whose confusion over attempted murder charges taints his view of the penal system from Day One.

"I didn't mean to kill him," Cruz cries after hearing the old man he shot has since died. "I only shot him in the ass."

It isn't contested that Cruz is guilty of the crime. It's the system that's unclear as to how to deal with the truth. The truth hurts, Cruz is later advised by his court-appointed attorney, the squeaky clean Mary Jane.

"It's not about trust," she nonchalantly admits. What help is that to a poor Latino young man whose only grasp on a free life is through a young white woman?

Dawn Woollacott, as the doe-eyed young blond, is the perfect opposite of Cruz, pumping the idealistic but troubled lawyer with plenty of Americana bliss.

Enter Cruz's fellow inmate, Lucius Jenkins. He has been down Cruz's road many times.

But unlike the young Latino, Lucius' convictions are far more substantive. Having serially committed rapes and murders along the Florida coast, Lucius' evils are rooted in his own molestation and rape as a child.

The 42-year-old is steadfast in his adoration of Jesus.

Hugh Davis is as unflinching in his Broadway-caliber performance as Lucius is in his faith. The two go hand-in-hand to offer a most electrifying performance.

During the course of the inmates' lone daily hour of outdoor lockdown, where sunlight beats on their prison guard-beaten bodies, Cruz and Lucius take inventory of their place in the system.

What can God do for us now? What good is prayer? Where do we go from here?

At the offset, the greater mystery perhaps lies in Guirgis's affecting title. It's best kept a secret, and while its meaning is not clearly unraveled until it rolls out of Cruz's mouth, its revelation is nonetheless profound.

Better than what Guirgis could have hoped for, though, is director Robert Waterhouse's brilliant staging. The proscenium frame of the New Phoenix's auditorium is bastardized and treated as a side stage, placing a large portion of the action inside two centrally located jail cells. Cruz's and Lucius' cells are now engulfed by the audience, the judging public.

Even when the stage is utilized, it's only viewable through the bars of the prison cells, the gates of justice. Waterhouse's understanding of environmental theater is pitch-perfect with this haunting drama, inviting the unaware public on a train ride that's none too easy to stomach.

"Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train"
Review: 3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)

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