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Killer Joe | 04.07.12

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killerjoe sqIf this all sounds sordid, it is. But it is also hilarious. 

St. Louis Actor’s Studio

The Smith family lives contentiously in a mobile home near the border of Texas and Oklahoma. Son Chris (James Slover) is a born loser, dirty and lazy, and he’s in debt for $6,000 to a shady character we never meet. Daughter Dottie (Rachel Fenton) is an odd duck. She sleepwalks and talks, is sweet and seemingly naïve and childlike for her 20 years of age. Dad Ansel (Larry Dell) appears to be a manual laborer of some kind but he mostly hangs around the house guzzling beer in his grubby wife-beater, and stepmom Sharla (Missy Miller) is a waitress with a bit on the side and penchant for photography, which is going to cause big trouble later. Among the four of them, they’d be hard pressed to come up with a three-digit I.Q.killerjoe

Obviously, money is a problem, and Chris comes up with the idea to hire a hit man he heard about from a friend to kill his and Dottie’s biological mother, Ansel’s ex-wife, Adele. It seems she has an insurance policy, and Dottie is the beneficiary. Chris proposes they get this guy to whack her (and from what we hear about her as a mother from Dottie, she may need killin’) and pay him out of the proceeds. After that, they can divide the rest. There’s some arguing, of course, but not much more than there is about anything else in the household. Even Dottie advises them to do it, but she’s asleep at the time. So, game on, or it will be as soon as they decide whether to split the money three or four ways.

The next evening, Sharla’s getting ready for work and talking to her lover on the phone. She pretends it’s her girlfriend “Jenny” when Ansel comes in, but Dottie intuits Sharla has a boyfriend and says she deserves a nice one. Dottie has an uncanny ability to sense things and a memory that goes back almost to her birth. When Sharla tells Dottie to go get dressed because company is coming for dinner, the girl is reluctant. Dottie puts on a sexy black number, but she takes it off when she learns that she will be the only one home with the guest, Joe Cooper (Jason Cannon), “Killer Joe.” It seems that he has demanded a retainer for the hit job, and the Smiths can’t come up with one. He had come by earlier to do the deal with Chris and met Dottie at that time. He was attracted to her, and offers to let her be the retainer. So Chris, as he would, pimps out his sister and after a brief flirtation over tuna casserole, the two begin their strange “courtship.”

If this all sounds sordid, it is. But it is also hilarious. Tracy Letts’ first play (Bug, just closed at Muddy Waters was his second) is a trailer park George Bernard Shaw. The laughs come from both funny lines and what lies beneath them. But the seamier side of the same words is always present, so the play is working the audience on two levels: The All in the Family kind of humor is underpinned by murder, incest, domestic abuse and other forms of violence toward women and among men, ignorance, poverty, and hopelessness. Letts achieves an impressive balancing act. But there are also some problems inherent in the script, and some lack of attention to period detail on the part of the director, Milt Zoth.

Most of the weaknesses in the play itself seem to be with continuity. What time is it? What day is it? Why hasn’t one character changed out of a bloody shirt when it seems about a week has passed? There are also some lines we’ve heard elsewhere. Most confusing to me is why a body supposedly killed in a car wreck (a Pinto) is wrapped up on the sofa. Granted, the anachronisms are little things—a Coke can, a 21st century Coffee Mate jar, some apparel, and what appears to be a cell phone—but they’d have been easy to avoid and I found them distracting. Otherwise, Zoth has directed his cast to good performances.

Cannon comes in wearing a long trench coat, a black Stetson, neatly pressed jeans and a shirt with an impressive belt buckle. Well, course, it IS Texas. He is, not incidentally, also a police officer. His cowboy boots add a couple of inches to his 6 ft.-something height, and he literally fills the space, not just with his size, but with his presence. He uses big words. He is courteous and attentive to Dottie, treatment she definitely isn’t used to from a man. He almost makes us forget he’s a sociopath. Not quite, but close. With his tight-jawed lack of affect, he pulls us closer while pushing us away. He is so much more interesting than the Smiths.

As the play opens, when Chris and Ansel are talking about whacking Mama and sundry other things, they seemed off-sync. That is, they were acting, but not interacting. Their conversations became more natural by the superior Act II, and I think that the problem will iron itself out as the run goes on. Ansel has a habit that cracked me up every time because it’s so real: Whenever he comes in the room, he turns on the old TV. Every single time, no matter what is going on. If Joe is there, he turns it off.

Joe prefers country music on the radio, so we get to hear some good tunes, and an especially appropriate one at curtain. Sounds of rain and especially a dog that seems to have a great deal of animosity toward Ansel are excellently portrayed by Robin Weatherall’s sound design, but too much of the sound was drowned out by the bleed-through from the restaurant on the other side of the theatre wall. I don’t know if anything can be done about that, but it is particularly intrusive in quiet moments, the most profound of which kept the opening night audience mesmerized as Joe asserts his power over Dottie.

Nudity here, as it generally does, makes women seem submissive and vulnerable, which Dottie is anyway, but when she takes it all off for Joe, she has a spectacular acting opportunity, and Fenton takes full advantage of it. On the other hand, when Joe comes out of the bedroom naked except for his gun, he re-affirms his alpha status. He is an island of stillness amidst the storms constantly generated by the family (except Dottie). The language throughout the play is blistering, as is a particularly graphic bit involving Sharla, Joe, and a chicken leg from “K.Fry.C.” This one is best left to the grownups.

Teresa Doggett’s costumes are just right, down to the sweat stains on Ansel’s shirt when he comes out from bed in the middle of a hot Texas night. Patrick Huber’s lights are fine, and his set is one of the best I’ve seen at the Gaslight. It makes the most of the small stage, and props master Lisa Bekes has filled it with a hundred tiny details from troll dolls to old radios, TVs and appliances that are period perfect. The fight choreography by Brian Peters is truly impressive too. The whole crew deserves applause for this one.

In the end, what you think of Killer Joe may reflect what you think constitutes humor and acceptable stage behavior. I can see being offended by this play, but I believe it is also absurd enough to allow the audience to accept what happens and how. As it plays out, the story tends to reinforce the idea of karma, at least to an extent, because when the Smiths think they have the world by the tail, it whips around and bites them in the ass.

Killer Joe is at the Gaslight Theatre through April 22. You may contact www.stlas.org for information. | Andrea Braun

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