Story: The Smiths, a ramshackle clan who live in a trailer house “on the outskirts of Texas,” have reached a decision: Matriarch Adele must go. Permanently. That’s because Adele, who is divorced from Ansel Smith and living with another man, has taken out a $50,000 life insurance policy on herself. We know this because her wastrel son, Chris, heard about it from Adele’s boyfriend. Now Chris, wheels turning in his fevered brain, concocts a scheme to do away with dear old mom and collect on her policy. He enlists the aid of his dad, who semi-listens to the plot while watching something on his dilapidated TV.
Ansel’s wife Sharla overhears their conversation but doesn’t seem a bit disturbed. Neither does Charlie’s quiet sister Dottie, a 20-year-old, self-proclaimed virgin who agrees it’s a good plan. So, Chris hires Killer Joe Cooper, a Dallas police detective who dabbles in killing-for-hire on the side. Joe’s price is steep, so he takes Dottie as a ‘retainer’ until he collects his fee for Adele’s murder. Although Chris begins having second thoughts about his idea, particularly concerning his sister in which he shows a disturbing interest, Killer Joe already is ‘on the clock.’
Highlights: Playwright Tracy Letts, who won a Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2008 for his sprawling, salty saga August: Osage County, penned this bawdy, bizarre, two-act drama in 1991, two years before its first production at the Next Lab Theater in Chicago. Like others of his works to follow, Killer Joe is liberally laced with nudity and violence, increasing staples of American entertainment since Letts made his entrance into this world in Tulsa in the 1960s.
Letts has a marvelous ear for dialogue, and the colorful conversations, or what passes for conversation, of his sordid characters makes his work as compelling and enticing to watch as a spectacular train wreck. That’s appropriate, since the denizens of Killer Joe are on a one-way road to oblivion and neither concerned nor aware of that fact. In the current presentation by St. Louis Actors’ Studio in its season of “law and order” efforts, director Milt Zoth and his wonderfully cohesive group of artists on and off the stage blend their substantial abilities into a raucous, ribald and risqué rendering of Letts’ twisted and tasty tale.
Other Info: Patrick Huber shows us the seamy, squalid digs where the Smiths live in his stylishly clever set design that is dominated by a dreary screen door in the back, a curtain that serves as a makeshift door to the bedrooms, a living room littered with junk and focused on a rickety TV set and a functional kitchen where Sharla can drop off a couple of bags of fast food from “K Fry C.” His lighting has a harsh, gritty quality that matches the décor, and Lisa Beke’s props, including rabbit ears topped with tin foil on that TV, complement the depressing look.
Teresa Doggett’s costumes capture the ‘down and dirty’ appearance of the Smiths as well as the slick, western duds of the title character that exemplify his discipline and detail to his amoral duties, while Robin Weatherall’s sound design brings us the rantings of a Southern preacher or the wail of a Hank Williams honky-tonk tune on the tiny kitchen radio.
With this unappetizing backdrop, Zoth meticulously introduces us to the slow-thinking Smiths and the clinically cool Killer Joe. Although James Slover can’t really convince all of us he’s just 22 years old, his Chris is a fearfully funny buffoon who is every bit as destined to failure as the coyote he mocks in the road runner cartoon showing on that TV. Slover keeps the mayhem on full throttle as Chris thrashes about, making a bad situation alarmingly worse by the minute.
Larry Dell and Missy Miller make for a suitably slovenly pair as the weak and vacuous Ansel and his tough-talking, two-timing second wife Sharla. Rachel Fenton offers an extremely impressive portrayal of the painfully shy Dottie, who slowly blossoms as she overhears Sharla’s playful phone conversation and tells her stepmother, “You deserve a nice-looking boyfriend.” Fenton’s scene with Jason Cannon as the unnerving title character, when Joe tells Dottie to take off her casual togs and put on a sexy dress, is stunning theater as Fenton keeps her eyes transfixed on the ceiling while Dottie endures this brave new world of forced sexuality.
Cannon, in a suitably raspy voice that befits the mysterious assassin, casually conveys Joe’s surgically precise method of carrying out his assignment. He’s equally powerful in sudden bursts of fury that trigger an alarming melee with a flurry of fists and body slams all realistically achieved by fight choreographer Brian Peters.
The nudity of several characters sometimes is integral to the plot and other times merely gratuitous, much like the violence that peppers Letts’ story. But, then again, they merely mirror the sound and fury of the Smiths, a far cry from the Macbeths but perhaps more typical of Texas trash than Shakespearean savagery.
Play: Killer Joe
Group: St. Louis Actors’ Studio
Venue: Gaslight Theater, 358 North Boyle Dates: April 12, 13, 14, 15, 19, 20, 21, 22
Tickets: $20-$25; contact 1-800-982-2787 or ticketmaster.com
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb