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Chicago by John Olson

Killer Joe
Profiles Theatre

Killer Joe
(l-r standing) Darrell W. Cox, Howie Johnson, Somer Benson, Kevin Bigley; (seated) Claire Wellin.
Long before playwright Tracy Letts gave us the Weston family of his Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County, he created the even more dysfunctional Smiths of this, his first play. Living in a trailer home outside Dallas, Texas; the Smiths decide to hire a hit man, the titular "Killer Joe" Cooper, to kill the divorced mother of the clan and collect on her life insurance policy so that the drug-dealing son Chris can pay a debt to his suppliers. It gets worse. Since the Smiths don't have the cash to pay Joe's fee in advance as required, he accepts "possession" of their 20-year-old virginal daughter Dottie as a "retainer," refundable when his fees are received in full. This was Letts' first play, but it doesn't look like a first effort. It's a fully polished piece akin to some of the best work of the likes of Martin McDonagh and Quentin Tarentino, but with Letts' distinctive droll wit.

This production directed by Steppenwolf ensemble member Rick Snyder (the original Steve in August: Osage County) way exceeds expectations for a non-Equity storefront company. It's as good as anything seen on the city's professional companies and better in the sense that the audience is never more than about 50 feet from the action. Profiles' signature realism is well-served by the entirely believable cast of five. They establish the tension from the very beginning—sooner, really, with an irritating barking dog heard off in the distance before the action begins—and never let up, save for the 15-minute intermission. It begins with the anxious drug-dealer Chris (Kevin Bigley), frantic because his mother stole the drugs he intended to sell, making him unable to pay his suppliers who are threatening to kill him if he doesn't. Bigley's Chris is desperate and not quite clever enough to handle the world he's gotten into. As determined as he is to save his own skin, he's genuinely anguished about putting his sister in jeopardy and determined to protect her as much as can under the circumstances. Chris rarely looks anyone in the face, as if to acknowledge his insecurity. Bigley gives the character tics and mannerisms to communicate all this but he's never overly mannered.

Chris' anguish and initiative in hatching the plot drives the action, and while we have some empathy for him, it's our concern for sister Dottie that makes the play so riveting. Claire Wellin's portrayal of Dottie's terror as she first realizes she's to be given over to Joe is heartbreaking. She successfully communicates the feelings of a young woman who articulates very little—delivering her lines in a soft monotone that suggests she's afraid to speak at all. Dressed most of the time in a grey sweatshirt and jeans, Wellin gives her an ordinariness and vulnerability that makes her abuse even more frightening than it might be if she were not such an innocent.

Profiles' Co-Artistic Director Darrell W. Cox is, to the surprise of none among fans of this company, the sociopathic Killer Joe. He's played this sort of character many times before, but his Joe makes no effort to charm his prey here, as have some of his earlier bad-guy characters. His gravelly-voiced Joe is all about power. He has it all of it. He has the power to kill all the Smiths and get away with it. Cox is always a master of underplaying and he's perfectly matched to Letts' dry wit, as when he tells the father Ansel (at a particularly dire moment for Ansel), "It could have been worse" then casually tosses off a rejoinder, "No, I guess that's about as bad as it gets." Howie Johnson is initially low-key as the dad, Ansel, who passively goes along with Chris' scheme then becomes terrified when things go awry. His current wife, Sharla, is played as trailer trash bimbo by Somer Benson in a way that adds complexity to that stereotype. She's controlling and devious. Like Chris, she's not as clever as she needs to be, but unlike Chris, she's not so aware of her limitations.

Letts' writing navigates the difficult territory between defining his characters as lowlifes yet giving us empathy for them. The Smiths are on the fringes of society and trying to solve a dire problem with the limited resources—intellectual as well as financial—they possess. The production's ability to make us see their humanity and believe the whole proceedings could happen owe much to the production design as well as the brilliant acting and direction. The set by Sotirios Livaditis has the metallic-looking walls of a trailer and a functioning sink in the kitchen, complete with a leaky faucet. (In the intimacy of Profiles' 50-seat theatre you're close enough to notice details like that.) Darcy McGill's costumes are dead-on. From Dottie's sweatshirt and her plain "good" dress, Chris' Dallas Cowboys t-shirt and his black racing jacket to Ansel's dirty white briefs (which, fearlessly, is all he wears in the opening scene), they all seem exactly what these characters would wear. Then there is the violence design by R&D Choreography. With fighting, choking, bullets and blood, it's disturbingly real, even from ten feet away. The full-frontal nudity of both female and male varieties adds to the realism and believability of the action.

This is the sort of show that is sometimes criticized for its sensationalism and shock value. It works on that level, for sure, and it could also be viewed as a mean-spirited satire of "trailer trash," a term which Letts gives new meaning in a visual joke. You can enjoy it on those levels, if you will, but look at little deeper and see if Letts isn't telling us that a society's decay might just begin at the edges. Just don't bring your kids—if they're under 17, they won't be admitted. Definitely don't bring your mom, unless she's very open-minded—and you're certain she won't suspect you of getting ideas from the Smiths.

Killer Joe has been extended through April 11, 2010, at Profiles Theatre, 4147 N. Broadway, Chicago. For tickets, visit www.profilestheatre.org, or call 773-549-1815.


Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson



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