Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Tracy Letts' Trailer Trash Play
Killer Joe Slays Me

Also see Richard's review of Cabaret

Anna Bullard and Stacy Ross
Marin Theatre is really pushing the production envelope with the graphically intense play from Pulitzer prize nominated playwright Tracy Letts. Killer Joe is the Tobacco Road of the 21st century. The New York Times calls it a "white trash Gothic with a comic book spin." This production is for mature audiences only. One could say that this is the epitome of physical theatre or a type of guerilla theatre that has increasingly become popular with younger theatregoers.

Killer Joe is about the Smiths, a down on their luck family living in a seedy trailer park just outside of Dallas. The opening scene of Stacy Ross as Sharla Smith making her entrance in full frontal nudity, with language to match, will shock some of the older staid audience members. If that is not enough, her husband Ansel played by Howard Swain comes trotting in in his birthday suit speaking in one syllable words that sound like early Mamet.

Tracy Letts' white trash Grand Guignol comedy-drama had its premiere in Chicago in 1993. It went to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival where it won the Fringe's top prize. The play was so popular with British audiences that it transferred to the Bush Theatre and then moved to the larger Vaudeville Theatre. The English loved seeing the lower depths of American culture and it drew capacity crowds. Killer Joe finally reached New York in 1998 at the Off-Broadway Soho Playhouse where it became the talk of the town. Joe was played by the steely Scott Glenn, and Amanda Plummer played the slut Sharla Smith. Since that time, Killer Joe has been performed in ten countries in over a dozen languages.

Killer Joe's plot is a basic "film noir" story about Chris Smith (Ryan Montgomery), on the run with debt problems from drug deals gone wrong. He tries to get money from his father Ansel (Howard Swain) and stepmother Sharla (Stacy Ross) who really have no desire to help - and wouldn't even if they had any money. Chris' sister Dottie (Anna Bullard) lives in a dream world of her own and seems oblivious to the problems running rampant through the family.

Chris has discovered that Dottie is the sole heir to their estranged mother's life insurance policy, and he devises a plan to get the $50,000 death benefit. With the cooperation of Ansel and his wife they hire Killer Joe Cooper (Cully Fredricksen), a full time cop with the Dallas police department and a part time assassin. Since the family has no money for a deposit, Joe asks for a "retainer" in the form of the young and naïve Dottie. From there the play becomes an intense downward spiral of battered women and men, a statutory rape, greed beyond control plus some sick humor. There is no pity for any of the characters. The ending, which I won't disclose, is a thrilling conclusion that has to be seen.

Killer Joe is not for Neil Simon, Noel Coward or Terence Rattigan fans. All of the characters are white trash stereotypes who eat buckets and buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken as a gourmet meal. The trashy trailer is much larger than in the New York production. Set designer Giulio Cesare Perrone has devised a large trailer set in black, white and shades of grey with no hint of color with the exception of some bloody red scenes in the second act. It's full of tacky furniture: smudged gray cabinets, an old black and white TV set with aluminum foil-covered rabbit ears, and a grubby refrigerator full of six packs. Beneath the long trailer are old auto parts and dried out weeds. You can occasionally hear a dog barking, thanks to sound engineer Norman Kern. Since this is supposed to be in the '70s, there are sounds of the old detective series "Cannon" and wrestling matches coming from the television set.

Director Lee Sankowich (doing his last directorial work for the Marin Theatre) has assembled a physical and talented group of five actors to keep the action going at top speed. All of the performers give ardent, gleeful performances. Cully Fredricksen as Killer Joe Cooper, who as Dottie says "has eyes that hurt," gives a riveting performance. He conveys a steely egotistical will and his glances inflict considerably more pain in the second act. Anna Bullard as the young child-woman Dottie gives a brilliantly enthralling performance. There is a certain endearing daffiness about her in every scene. Ryan Montgomery gives an authentic performance as Chris, a quintessential loser.

Stacy Ross as stepmother Sharla plays the character as a believable unscrupulous slut. She does not shrink from the wretched sleaziness of her role. Howard Swain as Ansel is a wonderful buffoon who is more interested in watching television and smoking pot than in what is going on around him. He is hilarious in a scene with no words when he is just trying to empty his pockets after coming back from a funeral. Every time Ansel passes the television screen, he immediately becomes mesmerized no matter what is playing. His speech patterns consist of only short sentences since he does not have the brain to construct long speeches.

Killer Joe is a killer of a show. Even with its comic book characters, there is a certain amount of seriousness about the play. As one of the characters says, "People do the best they can."

Killer Joe runs through February 12 at the Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave, Mill Valley. For tickets please call 415-388-5208 or visit

Photo: Ed Smith

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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