by Lynn on February 8, 2020

in The Passionate Playgoer

l-r: Daren A. Herbert, Xavier Lopez
Photo: Dahlia Katz

At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Stephen Adly Guirgis

Directed by Weyni Mengesha

Set by Ken MacKenzie

Costumes by Shannon Lea Doyle

Lighting by Kevin Lamotte

Sound by John Gzowski

Fight director, Simon Fon

Cast: Diana Donnelly

Daren A. Herbert

Xavier Lopez

Tony Nappo

Gregory Prest

A heart-thumping production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ gripping play about the hopeless American penal system if one is a person of colour, peace through prayer, and finding grace in a graceless place.

The Story. Lucius Jenkins and Angel Cruz are both in notorious Rikers Island prison in New York City for murder. Lucius admits his crime. Angel says he didn’t mean to kill the man he did. He just meant to “shoot him in the ass.”  Angel was getting revenge for a crime his victim committed. Angel’s overworked lawyer, Mary Jane Hanrahan, tries to show him the intricacies of the American legal system in order to get him off. In the meantime the guard Valdez is determined to keep both Lucius and Angel under his thumb, bullied and browbeaten. D’Amico was the guard before Valdez. He treated Lucius with respect, kindness and consideration. He used to bring him cookies or some of his wife’s home cooking. D’Amico was soon removed. Kindness has no place in that prison.

The Production. Ken MacKenzie’s set is masterful in evoking the dispiriting nature of the stark jail cells in which Lucius (Deren A. Herbert) and Angel (Xavier Lopez) live. The walls are dark grey. There are no windows. Each cell has a steel bench on which to sit or lay. There is a door stage left beyond the cells. Shannon Lea Doyle’s costumes are a prison shirt and pants for Lucius and Angel; full cop uniforms and gear (handcuffs, billy club, notepad) for Valdez (Tony Nappo) and D’Amico (Gregory Prest). Mary Jane Hanrahan (Diana Donnelly) wears a slim skirt and simple white blouse. There is nothing fancy here.

There is noise. There is the noise of the banging cell doors. The echo of people walking. The yells for people to be quiet. At the beginning of the production Angel is on his knees praying, illuminated by Kevin Lamotte’s eerie light. He is saying the Lord’s Prayer but gets stuck on that bit about the name. Is it “Howard be thy name?” Something else? He gets more and more flustered. The voices around him telling him to shut up get louder and louder. He continues searching for the right word and finally gets it—‘hallowed be thy name.” By this time the angry voices from the unseen cells around him are deafening. Xavier Lopez as Angel is a bundle of nerves, trying not to lose control, trying to keep his wits about him. His anxiety is obvious. He’s praying for a reason—for comfort, solace, peace. Mary Jane Harahan, as played by Diana Donnelly, is an exhausted, overworked public defender. While Angel is frustrated by her—he wants a male lawyer– he soon learns to trust her. There is a grudging respect. She tries to help him by maneuvering through the maze of the system. He tries to keep up.

Lucius (Daren A. Herbert) keeps his body toned with strenuous exercise in his cell or in the exercise yard when he is allowed out for an hour. He keeps his mind and spirits up with God. He prays. He knows the bible. He has given himself to God for forgiveness. We learn later what he did. He admits it. No excuses. Later he offers information of the hideous life he’s lived. It’s information we might consider an excuse, but Lucius, as played by the masterful Daren A. Herbert, is comfortable and confident in himself. There is no remorse. There is acceptance. It’s a performance that is full of quiet confidence. There is no swagger. There is a spirituality about Lucius that makes him calm and knowing. Valdez, played by a menacing Tony Nappo, tries to keep Lucius subservient with taunts, insults, threats and bullying tactics. Valdez calls him a loser and says that his eyes are those of a dead man. Actually Lucius’ eyes are lively with life and a slight sneer to the bully Valdez. Nappo does not play the obvious by bellowing or imposing his weight against the defenceless prisoners. It’s an interesting dual of one attitude trying to overpower another. Gregory Prest as D’Amico is quiet spoken, decent and kind. He tells us of a selfless thing he does at the end by going to see Lucius and seems disappointed when Lucius doesn’t recognize him. I wonder if that selfless thing was really a search for validation.

Director, Weyni Mengesha has meticulously created the fraught, frustrating world of the American penal system for Lucius and Angel as they survive in their cells. There is a camaraderie between the two men and also judgement. Angel is outraged at what Lucius did as his crimes and questions his belief in God and God’s belief in Lucius. The men argue about faith, hope, salvation and life. The rhythms and pace of the robust dialogue between Daren A. Herbert as Lucius and Xavier Lopez as Angel is bracing, compelling theatre.

Comment. Stephen Adly Guirgis writes about people struggling to live with dignity and respect in a system that does not value them (The Motherfucker with a Hat, Between Riverside and Crazy and Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train). His dialogue is muscular, has an intoxicating rhythm and is hilarious in spite of its darkness. Guirgis puts us in the world of his characters and makes us embrace them. Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train is a case in point. Terrific theatre.

Soulpepper Theater Company presents:

Opened: Jan. 30, 2020.

Saw it: Feb. 5, 2020

Closes: Feb. 23, 2020.

Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

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