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“Hallowed,” the young tough in the jail cell tries to say, wrestling with the word and biting back his fear and reeling under the contempt of his hard-case blockmates until all he can produce is a panicky stutter that sounds like nothing so much as “How, how, how, how how how?” And there, in small, is the question Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train insists we try to answer: How, flawed as we all are, can we ever hope to touch the divine?

If Stephen Adly Guirgis’ blistering, profanity-steeped prison drama seems a little formulaic here and there, it’s nonetheless a full-on grapple with the ugly realities of a world in which, as one character says, the truth will not set you free—in which “legal justice is an oxymoron.” Angel Cruz (Michael Ray Escamilla, in a splendid, committed performance) lands in that cell after he shoots a Moonie-style religious leader in the butt—an act that’s more frustration than aggression, the culmination of his unsuccessful efforts to deprogram a friend who’s swallowed the cultish Kool-Aid—and Jesus centers on the relationships he forms with the public defender assigned to him and the born-again serial killer he winds up sharing his maximum-security prison wing with. Play and playwright are more concerned with tough questions than easy answers, with complex debates rather than simple scenarios, but vivid writing, a strong Round House cast, and Jose Carrasquillo’s sure, sensible direction keep the show from becoming either sermon or symposium.

It does feel a little like a streetcorner revival now and again, but only because Michael Anthony Williams displays such tremendous craft as Lucius Jenkins—the “Black Plague” who claimed eight victims before finding Jesus in the big house, and who confronts Angel with questions about guilt and volition when the latter wraps himself in the mantle of didn’t-mean-to innocence. Guirgis gives Lucius plenty to say about personal responsibility, about the promise of redemption, and about the nature of faith—it “ain’t no gift; it’s a decision,” Lucius thunders at one point, proving that somebody’s read his Aquinas—but his concerns aren’t all so philosophical. He talks about the harsh everyday, too, and Williams shifts between the rhythms of the street and the cadences of the pulpit with remarkable fluency. (His performance is just as impressive physically; a calisthenics session throws new light on the phrase “exercise of faith,” and there’s something disquietingly eloquent about the way his fingers twitch when someone beards Lucius in his lockdown den.)

Guirgis balances his cast with a sadistic prison guard and a crusading lawyer, both willing to bend or break the rules in pursuit of what each sees as higher justice. Mando Alvarado’s Valdez sees in Angel a criminal no less deviant than Lucius, another scumbag to be brought to heel; Jane Beard’s Mary Jane Hanrahan sees in him a dim reflection of her troublemaker father, who was never afraid to make a scene to make a point, even if a nose or two got broken. Angel, like her father, “was trying to do a great right at the expense of a little wrong,” she rationalizes, and she resolves to get him acquitted despite her certain knowledge that he did the crime. Moral relativity and personal hubris become entangled—and they bring trouble down on everyone’s head.

That outcome will seem more or less inevitable, but Guirgis manages more than one surprise in a second act that, if it sometimes seems to be slouching its way toward a grim Bethlehem, nonetheless offers a keen observation or two. Bill Gillett’s good-natured turnkey, not seen since the early–Act 1 indiscretion that replaced him with Valdez, returns to deliver a key piece of information that underscores all the questions Williams’ eloquent body language has been raising about the genuineness of Lucius’ reformation. (It comes in a rueful, wonderfully tender speech that says as much about human nature as anything in the play.) And after Lucius finally reaches Angel—with a wrathful argument that starts with an offhand comment and ends with an all but heartbreaking cry—Guirgis confronts us with a triad of ugly truths. On this earth, he insists, evil does go unpunished. We are all of us a part of why. And while we’re here, we’ll never, ever be entirely sure about the possibility of our redemption.

Jesus isn’t perfect: Certain sequences drag (take the cigarette, already!), and more than one character speaks in phrases that seem less than natural. But the play boils over with passion, with pain, and with an intellectual restlessness that charges nearly every exchange—and the well-matched cast keeps its arguments in taut balance, never giving an inch and never dropping any of the balls Guirgis insists they juggle. Take it on faith: “Good” may be a tough proposition for Angel and his companions, but Carrasquillo & Co. make it look all but effortless. CP