Early Warning Device

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For those of you who have been reading my blog since it’s inception in October 2007, you know how much I love Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer and Tony-winning August: Osage County and think it’s one of the greatest American contemporary plays (something Time Magazine seems to agree with, having selected it as number 1 in its Best Plays of the Decade list).  Curiously though, I have never seen a live production of any of Letts’ previous plays- Killer Joe, Bug, or the Pulitzer finalist Man from Nebraska.  Obviously I didn’t think he sprang fully-formed and awards-ready from a mythical Great Playwright mother pearl, so August, with its almost-perfect dialogue and its mesmerizing storytelling could only be the culmination of techniques and themes that he used in the earlier ones.  I was also very aware of the semi-notoriety that both Killer Joe and Bug have in terms of its raw sexuality and violence, so I was very intrigued to see how Profiles Theatre, the admittedly brazen storefront theater company that I’ve had a rollercoaster love-it/hate-it relationship over the years of Chicago theater watching would stage Killer Joe.  Although I don’t think it has the depth, the impact, and the lingering quality of August (really though, which recent play has?), the twenty year old Killer Joe holds up pretty well, continuing to deliver the goods in explosive drama, and the Profiles production, directed by Letts’ fellow Steppenwolf ensemble member (and original August cast member) Rick Snyder is a (literally) rip-roaring night at the theater.  And it’s still the one play that has the most original use of KFC drumsticks as stage props that I’ve ever seen.

Trying to describe the plot and the characters of Killer Joe in a blog post is like trying to describe the state of shock that a Chinese firecracker setting off close to your eardrum inflicts.  It’s a play that you just have to see, instead of read about.  In essence, the story boils down to a trailer park-living, white trashy family hiring a policeman moonlighting as a hired killer to whack the family matriarch for insurance money to pay off the son’s drug debts and ensure that everyone else live happily ever after.  And all these characters, the cop, Killer Joe Cooper; the high-strung son, Chris; the slovenly father, Ansel; the slutty stepmom, Sharla; and the dreamy, somewhat mentally challenged daughter, Dottie, are so vividly depicted and have specific, idiosyncratic qualities, that they reminded me of the brilliantly etched characterizations of the August extended family.  Between the five of them, Killer Joe comes off like a low-rent cross between No Country for Old Men and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (and I say that fondly), a lurid opera populated with scummy, outrageous, mostly dim-witted characters who still all come off sympathetic and engrossing.  Unlike August, it’s really the character writing that you come away with from this play versus any narrative brilliance.  Oh, plus that scene with the KFC drumstick (more on that later).

The characters in Killer Joe are, well, killer roles so a production’s success really hinges on a cast’s ability to not only play (or overplay, but just enough) the Grand Guignol elements but also find the subtle shadings that Letts imbues each character with.  The Profiles production has a terrific cast.  Profiles Associate Artistic Director Darrell W. Cox is known around town for giving these blistering, sweaty, screaming performances of imperfect, sometimes brutish men (which, truth be told, I’m not a big fan of) but he gives Killer Joe the right balance of menace and sadness.  He makes you believe that this ruthless, conscience-less killer can fall for the delicate, childish Dottie (their dinner date scene is particularly poignant).  An interesting young actor, Kevin Bigley, comes screeching in like a hellcat during the first scene in typical Profiles fashion, but settles into a more shaded performance as the play progresses, demonstrating not only Chris’s panic, fear, and anger, but also his tenderness and vulnerability.  The standout performance though, in my opinion, belongs to ensemble member Somer Benson whose Sharla is gutsy and no-holds-barred, delusional and pathetic, heart wrenching in the foolishness of her decisions and actions.  She also has some of the “did Letts actually write that?” scenes such as lounging around bottomless in the opening scene when Chris comes barging into their trailer; and the infamous (and pretty lengthy) chicken leg scene in which Killer Joe discovers her role in the pursuit of the insurance money and humiliates her by making her give oral sex to a drumstick attached to his crotch.  I think Benson’s performance, boundaryless but genuinely heartfelt, makes the scene less cringe-inducing that it could have been.  In my opinion, Claire Wellin’s Dottie is a little too spacey, losing some of the steely fragility that I envision the character to possess (I mean she’s able to attract and hold on to a killer), and Howie Johnson’s Ansel is a little laid-back content to have all the other characters chew every scenery, prop, and Diet Coke bottle in sight.

Killer Joe is enjoyable- a pulpy, racy evening, unobtrusively directed by Snyder, letting Letts’  amazing writing skills shine through- although it’s probably not recommended for the squeamish.  However, it is highly recommended for the multitudes of Tracy Letts and August fans out there who want to see where he’s been to appreciate even better what he has remarkably achieved.

Killer Joe is at Profiles Theatre, 4147 N. Broadway, until February 28.

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2 Responses to “Early Warning Device”

  1. tom sherman Says:

    Saw it last night! You want to hit up KFC some time soon?

  2. francis Says:

    Haha, Tom. “Killer Joe” is the worst advertisement for KFC and fried fast food in general!

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