REVIEW: Killer Joe (Profiles Theatre)

Family Dysfunction Makes for a Good Dark Comedy

  killer-joe1

Profiles Theatre presents:

Killer Joe

 

by Tracy Letts
directed by Rick Snyder
thru February 28th (ticket info)

Review by Keith Ecker

I don’t think I’m going to create a controversy by saying Tracy Letts is one of the biggest deals in Chicago theatre. The man won a Pulitzer and a Tony for August: Osage County, his play Superior Donuts recently finished its run on Broadway, and he currently can be seen at the Steppenwolf, where he is an ensemble member, playing the hotheaded Teach in David Mamet’s American Buffalo (our review ★★★★).  He’s like a Chicago theater god, both in skill and his omnipresence.

Johnson, Bigley, Cox vert With all this acclaim and success, Letts’ name has become a hot commodity. And for theatres, producing one of his plays is a pretty safe bet for financial return. That’s why Profiles Theatre is smart to stage Letts’ 1991 trailer-trash tragedy, Killer Joe.

Killer Joe is a direct predecessor of August: Osage County. Thematically both pieces share many commonalities, including themes of family dysfunction, sexual abuse and death. Comparisons can be drawn on a more surface level, too, with Killer Joe taking place just a few hours south of Osage County in a trailer home outside of Dallas.

The play centers on an absurdly stereotypical Texas family. Their trailer home is a mess with remnants of last night’s McDonald’s meal scattered about the kitchen table, a pack of Marlboro cigarettes by the kitchen sink and a dog incessantly snarling and barking on the front lawn.

The father, Ansel (Howie Johnson) is a rotund man who feels most comfortable moping around in his underwear and watching NASCAR. When his son, Chris (Kevin Bigley), enters in a panic, begging for money to pay off a debt to a criminal, Ansel acts surprisingly nonchalant.

Cox, Johnson, Bigley, vertical Unfortunately there is no one else in the trailer who can help Chris out of his bind. Ansel’s second wife Sharla (Somer Benson), a woman who sees nothing unsightly about wearing a thong with low-rise jeans, is more concerned with herself than her own husband. Meanwhile Chris’ little sister Dottie (Claire Wellin) is the epitome of fragility and naiveté.

Self-reliant and having an affinity for schemes, Chris comes up with a plan to hire someone to kill his birth mother, a wretchedly abusive woman who has an insurance policy on her head for $50,000.

Enter Killer Joe Cooper (Darrell Cox), one part Dallas cop and one part hired killer. Joe is the quintessential man in black. He has a booming voice and intimidating, penetrating eyes. And although his price may be steep, he always guaranties to get the job done. Just don’t ask too many questions.

The play is an engaging tale that plays out like a redneck soap opera or a trailer park Shakespearean tragedy. Still, at times the characters can come across as one-dimensional. Ansel is a big dumb idiot; Chris is a hotheaded rebel and Sharla is a skank. Dottie, who takes on the role of the sacrificial virgin, is the one character that undergoes dramatic change throughout the course of the play. Somewhat of a dark comedy, when the humor hits, it’s tragically funny. But there’s a lot of grave seriousness too, including some uncomfortable but well staged scenes involving sex and violence.

Cox does a good job playing Joe’s multiple facets, from southern gent to cold-blooded killer. His performance makes it that much more shocking when Joe tosses aside his southern hospitality to reveal the psychopath that lies beneath. However, the younger actors, Bigley and Wellin, seemed to struggle reaching emotional depth. Bigley plays angry and frustrated well, but he seems to be stuck on a single gear. The same can be said for Wellin, except replace angry and frustrated with melancholy and aloof.

killer-joeSteppenwolf ensemble member Rick Snyder’s direction is magnificent. The theater is a small space flanked by the audience on either side. Cramming five actors into one scene is no easy task. But even in the most action-intense segments, the stage never seems overcrowded. In addition, scenes of violence and sexual abuse are not treated as gratuitous, but rather are staged in a manner that speaks to the core of the characters.

Killer Joe isn’t Letts’ most significant contribution to theatre. But it’s an entertaining play. Although not without a few flaws, Profiles Theatre’s production succeeds in adroitly transporting the audience to a tiny Texas trailer filled with family dysfunction.

 

Rating: ★★★½

Additional review: Chicago Examiner

9 Responses

  1. Really? Only 3 and one half stars?

    THIS WAS THE SECOND BEST PRODUCTION OF ANY PLAY I HAVE EVER SEEN IN CHICAGO.

    The material set aside (It is brilliant in and of itself), the casting was phenomenal, the pitch perfect, and the execution powerful.

    If you have not seen this, please do yourself a favor and do.

  2. This was a great play, extremely well acted and portrayed. Very gripping yet nice and dark, sorry I am a little sadistic, so this was a very enjoyable play.
    Can’t wait to see another dark thrilling show by this group.
    ps. When the play starts there seemed to be a larger number of older gentlemen staring into a young ladies privates…..dirty old men….

  3. […] ★★★) Death of a Salesman – Raven Theatre (review ★★★½) Killer Joe – Profiles Theatre (review ★★★½ ) The Pillowman -  Redtwist Theatre (review ★★★) St. Crispin’s Day – […]

  4. […] Enjoy a complimentary drink and snacks from the Royal George Cabaret bar and then meet the team behind one of the most acclaimed shows of the year in a rare post-show discussion with the original cast. Killer Joe focuses on the Smith family, a greedy, vindictive clan of Texans who hatch a plan to murder their estranged matriarch to cash in on her insurance policy. Unable to bring themselves to do the deed, they hire Killer Joe Cooper, a full-time cop and part-time contract killer. Once he steps into their trailer, their simple plan quickly spirals out of control.  (our review ★★★½) […]

  5. […] Dill’s Alabama droll. Claire Wellin (who I last saw in Profile Theatre’s amazing production of Killer Joe) delivers an emotionally charged performance as Mayella Ewell, the young woman alleging rape. She […]

  6. […] the surface, Kid Sister invites comparisons to Killer Joe (our review ★★★½), Tracy Letts’ thrilling and twisted comedy of matricide, sociopaths and trailer […]

  7. […] Killer Joe  Profiles Theatre (Jan 2010) Written by Tracy Letts directed by Rick Snyder our review […]

  8. […] Killer Joe  Profiles Theatre (Jan 2010) Written by Tracy Letts directed by Rick Snyder our review […]

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