Killer Joe tells the story of the Smith family - four people who live in a Texas trailer park, eat all their meals off paper plates and never stop to wonder why. Letts has a lot of fun at their expense, yet gradually the comedy fades away and the desperation of these dead-end lives takes precedence. These people use violence and manipulation to get what they want, and think nothing of whom their actions hurt until its too late. But the more disturbing Killer Joe gets, the more gripping it gets. And thanks to an excellent cast and some smart direction, Theatre Exile's production of Killer Joe succeeds in ways even the highly acclaimed Off-Broadway version didn't.
The people of Killer Joe are unpleasant, and Letts' plot is even more so: Chris, a cocaine dealer whose stupidity gets him into one scrape after another, is badly in debt to one of his suppliers, and when he can't come up with the $6,000 he needs, he decides to murder his own mother for her life insurance policy. (After all, "Is she doing anybody any good?") His father Ansel, long divorced from Chris' mom, goes along with the plan, and together they hire Killer Joe Cooper, a Dallas cop who commits murders for hire as a sideline. When Chris and his family can't afford Joe's fee, Joe devises a layaway plan (so to speak): to take Chris' virginal sister Dottie to his bed as a "retainer" until the insurance money comes through. It's then that Chris begins to regret his scheme - but not enough to call it off.
When I saw Killer Joe Off-Broadway in 1999, I was more repulsed than entertained. Despite the presence of stars like Scott Glenn as Joe and Michelle Williams as Dottie, the show felt too ugly - too much underbelly, not enough uplift. I got up from my seat at the end of the night thinking that I needed to take a bath to get the stench of these lowlifes off me.
At Theatre Exile, I didn't think that. Joe Canuso's direction gets the blend of comedy and tragedy just right, and the casual pace gives the actors room to reveal the humanity in the characters. This makes the climax even more tragic.
A cast of first-rate actors helps. John Lumia brings charm to the title role, letting the audience see Joe as more than just a killing machine. Matt Saunders strongly conveys all the self-torture Chris goes through as he comes to realize that he's destroyed Dottie, the one good thing in his life. Pearce Bunting has a perfectly passive tone as Ansel, always befuddled by the world around him; and Mary Lee Bednarek has a nice air of seen-it-all detachment as Ansel's slutty new wife.
But it's Amanda Schoonover who makes the strongest impression, giving Dottie just the right touch of humor and pathos. Dottie appears to be slightly retarded, yet is, in an odd way, perhaps the wisest member of her family. She's certainly the happiest, responding to tragedy with a chipper smile and an "Okey dokey." She begins as a wide-eyed innocent, but eventually she becomes someone very different; Schoonover evokes warmth and sympathy on every step of her journey.
Cast member Saunders designed the set, which has just the right touch of tackiness. And the sense of fun here extends to the ironic use of background music, like playing the Eagles' "Peaceful Easy Feeling" right before one of the most brutal fight scenes you may ever see onstage. (Kudos to John Bellomo for fight choreography so raw that it made some audience members recoil in horror.)
Killer Joe isn't always easy to take. It is thought-provoking and unsettling, and the blend of comedy and cruelty is a tricky one. Kudos to Theatre Exile for pulling it off.
Killer Joe runs through Sunday, May 28 at Second Stage @ The Adrienne, 2030 Sansom Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $17 to $25, and are available by calling 215-922-4462, online at www.theatreexile.org, or by visiting the box office.